July 22 — July 28
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
Horse racing is known as “the sport of kings” but it’s not solely because of the majestic beauty and imperial dignity of the horses that run. To be brutally frank, the fine art of breeding horses for racing has always been a rich man’s game; the lower classes have generally participated mostly by betting money on the races (and losing). It takes capital to raise winning racehorses: the stables, the trainers, the jockeys, the care and feeding, the veterinary services—it’s too expensive for ordinary horse-lovers to even consider undertaking. But miracles occasionally happen. Sometimes a dark horse pulls off the upset, besting the overhyped competition. Dark Horse is such a story. It’s an inspiring documentary about a group of blue collar Welsh villagers who band together to breed a winning racehorse. This “cooperative” was the brainchild of barmaid/cleaning woman Jan Vokes. In 2001, after hearing a lawyer discussing his own experience as a racehorse owner, Jan gets an idea: she’ll get a group of like-minded friends to pool their financial resources to create a winner. Yes, not only does it take a village to raise a child, it takes a village to raise a racehorse as well. And the villagers of former mining town Cefn Forest actually raise the horse. They don’t buy an established winner but create their own, purchasing the mare and paying a stud fee, then patiently wait. The horse doesn’t seem promising at first, but Jan hires a trainer who gets “Dream Alliance” up to snuff. To the surprise of many, the horse actually wins a race. The story doesn’t go completely Hollywood, though, because Dream Alliance doesn’t become one of the legends of the sport. After the initial win, Dream’s career hits a rocky patch. This isn’t the “Rocky” of horse racing movies. Actually, the film is rather like the first, Oscar-winning Rocky film. Viewers will remember that Sylvester Stallone’s likeable loser didn’t win his fight with Apollo Creed (he lost on a decision)—but he scored a personal triumph, “going the distance” and showing he had the courage and the heart to stand up against boxing’s best. Dark Horse is a story of personal triumph as well. Dream Alliance doesn’t become champion of the world, but the villagers who worked together to take on the racing elite prove themselves winners to us. Viewers can’t help but cheer for these humble, down-to-earth folk, whose rural wisdom and humor are a sharp contrast to the stuffy, pompously regal air surrounding much of professional horseracing. It’s not “snobs vs. slobs” but there’s definitely an element of class warfare underlining the story. The tone is gentle, though, and the social points aren’t hammered into the ground. The focus is on how one woman’s dream transformed a village, bringing common people together to make their mark on a sport whose wealthy establishment traditionally denied them access. Director Louise Osmond wisely lets the villagers reveal themselves as interesting, complex people, rather than try to sell them as lovable bumpkins with cute Welsh accents. If this were a fictional story, we could easily imagine a twee British movie being made of it, filled with quirky, naïve, horse-crazy eccentrics. Osmond doesn’t need to make “characters” of her subjects; they’re naturally engaging, smart, articulate people with a firm grip on reality. That doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally get carried along by their dreams—and carry us right along with them. Dark Horse won the Audience Award at the recent Sundance Film Festival, and in the best sense of the phrase, it’s a movie made for audiences. It’s made to be enjoyed by a crowd because it’s a celebration of community. Neither overly sentimental nor stretching for Hollywood-type clichés, Dark Horse is a terrific empowerment story that wins us over with its sincerity and simple message. If this weren’t enough, what might put a tear in the eye of even the most resistant viewer is the relationship that emerges between the villagers and their horse. At first, we’d suspect that it was visions of monetary payoff and exciting victories at the track that helped Vokes sell her “stakeholder” plan to her friends in Cefn Forest. We might be reminded of other British stories of lower-class folk embarking on a profit-making scheme in response to the dismal economy (The Full Monty for example). But like those films, it becomes clear that money isn’t the overriding factor in Dark Horse. Dream Alliance isn’t just an investment for these people. They have genuine love for this horse. It really is an alliance of their dreams—not dreams of wealth, but of community and being able to hold their heads up high, sharing the owners’ box at the track and standing next to snooty, impeccably tailored millionaires. Dream Alliance gives Cefn Forest a sense of pride, and it’s hard not to choke up a little when a sudden injury causes the villagers to rally around the fallen horse. Using not just interviews but archival footage of Dream Alliance’s amazing career, Dark Horse is the kind of uplifting film that Hollywood constantly tries to manufacture—but there’s no substitute for the real thing.
(Rated PG for some mature themes and profanity.)
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