The mining village of Cefn Fforest is a small town in South Wales. The lush, flourishing lowlands give way to windswept pastures, yielding an historic time capsule sparsely inhabited by roughly 4,000 working-class people. Jan Vokes (Toni Collette) has found that her way of life in Cefn Fforest has grown rather mundane. She works the early shift at the town grocery and cares for her elderly parents each afternoon. Following her daily obligations, Jan returns to her simple home to care for her apathetic husband, Brian (Game of Thrones’ Owen Teale). They’ve spent their whole lives in the valley. Life has become routine, a grind. There is a spark missing that goes beyond just their marriage.
In the evenings, Jan walks the sloping, terraced streets alone to the local watering hole, where she tends bar for extra money. On an evening that began no different from countless others she had experienced over the years, Jan overhears tax accountant Howard Davies (Homeland’s Damian Lewis), a boisterous customer, bragging about a prized racehorse he once owned. Sparked by the excitement Davies’ stories bring out in the other patrons, Jan begins studying up on horse breeding with the curiosity and vigor she once had rearing whippets and racing pigeons in her youth. She manages to convince her husband to purchase a mare with the intent of breeding the horse with a stallion. The price of the stud fee plus the expense of training is well beyond the Vokes’ cost of living. With the help of Davies, Jan recruits a motley crew of characters from her village to form an ownership syndicate, with each member contributing to the weekly expenses.
The disparate group is not in it for the money, but instead they do it for the “hwyl,” the emotional motivation and energy they get out of the experience. They name their foal “Dream Alliance.” As they come together as a community to raise their horse, the once-forgotten town is gradually reawakened and given purpose.
While Jan and Howard come from completely different backgrounds, their unlikely friendship is at the center of the film. They unite within the larger group around a single cause. Along the way, the determined and enthusiastic syndicate unexpectedly manages to recapture a bit of their youth, a passion for life, and the joy of dreaming of bigger things.
Based on an incredible true story, Dream Horse is a remarkable underdog tale that translates well on screen. It is both captivating and wholesome, weaving in a parable of resilience with the excitement that horse racing fans and animal lovers will see eye-to-eye on.
Director Euros Lyn knew he would need a versatile actress to play the headstrong and determined Jan. Toni Collette was his very first choice for the role. Collette, like many others, fell in love with the long-shot story as soon as she read the script. She studied the real-life Jan through interviews at the Sundance Film Festival, where Dark Horse, a documentary of the same story, played in 2015. Collette’s chemistry with Damian Lewis is endearingly palpable and goes a long way towards achieving the emotional attachment one experiences through the film.
The race sequences are veritable and electrifying, meticulously shot and cut to feel authentic. The sound and score immerse the viewer in the saddle, where you find yourself holding your breath as each race unfolds.
In an era of too much darkness and uncertainty, Dream Horse is the type of feel-good, family film that we desperately need more of. A story of hope and perseverance, Dream Horse is a fist-pumping, heart-pounding joy to behold. I found myself smiling from ear-to-ear on more than one occasion.
Dream Horse is distributed by Bleeker Street Media and Topic Studios and will be in theaters May 21.