'Flicka': Now It's About a Girl, But This Is One Tough Girl

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2006

Depending on your point of view, the best thing or the worst thing about the new "Flicka" is that it has no time for fibberty-gibberty about "feelings." It's much more interested in how people get the job done, western-style, and that involves grit, labor and discipline. Then for fun, they go jump off perfectly fine horses to roll in the dirt with angry, squealing cows in something called "rodeo"!

So those seeking a softer approach to the realities of both child- and animal-rearing should search elsewhere. The rest of us, meanwhile, are free to enjoy a well-made family drama pitched to young adults that's honest, tough and surprisingly engaging.

It's based (as have been several other movies and a 1950s TV series) on Mary O'Hara's 1941 classic, "My Friend Flicka." That book told the story of the dreamy younger son of a Wyoming rancher who found focus and love in his admiration for a mustang foal, whom he named Flicka (Swedish for "little girl") and raised despite his father's disdain. But in persevering against the will of the animal and the will of the father, he proved -- mainly to himself -- that he, too, had a will of iron.

This edition, perhaps inevitably, performs a sex change on the material: As director Michael Mayer ably tells the story, it focuses on the younger daughter of a stern rancher, though the diagnosis is the same. She's dreamy and flighty, what most educators would recognize as dead giveaway for "creative," but anathema in the practical world of horse ranching in the high mountains of the Cowboy State. Not that 16-year-old Katy (Alison Lohman) is a softy. In a private-school classroom she can hardly force herself to pay attention; in the real world, she can ride like a boy and rope like a man, and she loves the Goose Bar Ranch on which her father is perched, like her father's father and perhaps before him. And who could blame the two of them for loving a landscape so vivid and beautiful?

Having disgraced herself in school -- her dad, Rob (singer Tim McGraw), has scrimped and saved to put her in a posh private joint called the Laramie Academy, though having seen Laramie, I doubt there are any real academies full of blazered and kilted tenth-formers -- she returns home and quickly falls in love. With a horse.

This phenomenon of girls and big horses has been much commented upon, in venues from the psychiatric to the literary to the meetings of saddle-marketing executives, and "Flicka" takes it for granted that everybody gets it. Well, I got it; I have a daughter, and her mother and I decided at one point that it was either horses or boys, so we encouraged horses, and of course for our troubles got both horses and boys. At least Rob doesn't have to deal with boy problems, although his horse problems kick hard and long.

Horse problem No. 1 is that the Goose Bar raises purebred quarter horses; thus a mustang foal is a potential genetic contaminant to the product, in that the boy horses (boys being boys) may git a li'l too durn interested in the new gal than in the old gals, and the various uncontrolled interbreeding will mess up a lot of plans.

But the real issue is, as before, will. It was O'Hara's genius 65 years ago to play two contests of wills against each other: the father's against the child's and the child's against the horse's. They seem at cross-purposes, but in that funny way things have of working out, maybe they're not.

So the movie essentially tracks both contests, as the girl tries to break the horse and the parent tries to break the daughter. But unlike a great number of movies similar to this topic of late -- "Thirteen" and "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" come to mind -- neither process is pathologized: The girl, the movie presumes, has every right to break the horse, as having roped Flicka and brought her in, the horse is now property. Likewise, the dad is never portrayed as a monster for seeking to dominate his daughter -- it used to be called "discipline" -- and the movie insists throughout that though strong of spirit and perhaps misguided, he is not a bad man and can ultimately learn to change and love in a more appropriate manner.

McGraw, who's done a bit of acting in addition to his fabulous C&W career, carries his part with a great deal of easy majesty. Rob is a man anybody who's spent any time in the West will know: strong, laconic, hardheaded -- yet absolutely the man you'd want in the foxhole next to you or on the opposite side of a deal, because he'll be square-shooting and word-keeping till the end of time. McGraw gets this, and though he dominates the movie, it's never harshly; you see his love behind his sternness.

Then there's Maria Bello as his wife, another actress who always manages to ring true, even in a piece of junk like "Coyote Ugly." And finally Lohman. She broke through big-time a few years back in "White Oleander" (where Michelle Pfeiffer was her supporting actress!) and this movie gives her the room to play hardscrabble tough. She's got true grit all the way through, and watching her, I thought: John Wayne would get it. In fact he'd get the whole dang movie!

Flicka (94 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for language.


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