Using the rodeo as a metaphor for life is not new. Champions of all stripes are ripe for tragic treatment, those that fly too high, too, fast, and lose track of what is important. Some emerge triumphant, with the latter acts held for a different time and place, a different film. Somewhere between “Rocky” and “Rose” there is a more measured treatment of what it is to win. This film, while no barn-burner, is such a solidly presented metaphor that it deserves a wide audience.
Fourteen-year-old Kris (Amber Havard) is a seething pot of teenage angst. Writer/director Annie Silverstein (co-written with Johnny McAllister) makes her the centerpiece of this stripped down slice-of-life story, with mixed results. White teenage girl Kris is paired with former rodeo bull rider Abe (Rob Morgan) who has been reduced to working as a wrangler clown in B rodeos. The two have a good chemistry on screen, their differences sparking the possibility of finding a different way.
In the first half hour the movie almost emerges as another “Million Dollar Baby.” The failing contender Abe begins to pass the baton to Kris as she mounts the practice bull and survives her first ride. The power of dual Oscar winners Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman maintains the energy level for another half hour before the story returns to prison. This is not going to be that easy.
Silverstein has the knife in now and she is going to twist it. Instead of a miraculous talent bred into her by generations of hardship and traumatic emotional loss, Kris gets her convict mom (a heartbreaking Sara Albright). She tells Kris about the ranch she is buying for zero down and the future she plans for them both upon her release. Kris’ mom will be the false dream that Kris has to get over. As Abe comes to grips with his dream a resonance vibrates from the screen.
There is no grand performance, no ultimate vindication, no gold medal that is going to wipe out generations of losses, betrayals and false opportunities. The movie stays solidly grounded in real life, no “Rocky” fantasies here. The cure for unrealistic dreams is real life friendship, support and respect.
A complete success for Annie Silverstein in her narrative fiction feature debut and also a complete success for Johnny McAllister as co-screenwriter. However, both are going to have to up their game to convert this solid exposition into something exciting. There has to be a path to making a grounded film with a little brighter outlook at the end of the tunnel.
Nonetheless, the film completely succeeds in shining a painful light on America’s left-behind and delivering a story of self-awareness and self-dependence. Drugs, poverty, incarceration and a seemingly never-ending procession of broken dreams and dead-ends can only be stopped by one’s self. There will not be any gold medal, only a life to be lived instead of thrown away.
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