"Flicka" is a wonderful film in search of an appropriately sized audience. It's not really either an animal or a kids' film but rather a young adult drama that rings emotionally true, with nary a manufactured note struck. But without a concerted marketing push, this sharply observed and acted story could be perceived as an old-hat family entry.

Updated and overhauled from its 65-year-old source novel to speak to the contemporary American West, “Flicka” is a wonderful film in search of an appropriately sized audience. To call this the best horse-and-kid picture since “The Black Stallion” a quarter century ago is true but misleading; it’s not really either an animal or a kids’ film but rather a young adult drama that rings emotionally true, with nary a manufactured note struck. But without a concerted marketing push — or even so much as pre-Sunday newspaper ads — to suggest there’s something special here, this sharply observed and acted story could be perceived as an old-hat family entry, with underachieving theatrical results a likely self-fulfilling prophecy.

As Mary O’Hara’s time-tested tale of hard-won maturity has been reconceived for a female lead, and cast with exceptional care by a leading theater director, it is apparent from the outset the filmmakers were aiming at something more than a run-of-the-mill remake. What emerges is this year’s acutely sensitive study of emotional turmoil set against the majestic backdrop of a Wyoming ranch.

The central character is now Katy McLaughlin (Alison Lohman), a boarding school student who heads home to her family’s Wyoming ranch home after having daydreamed her way through her final exam. Pretty and stubborn and clearly unresolved about many things, Katy is scarcely the privileged rich girl she at first appears to be; the family may have inherited some beautiful land, but Katy’s tradition-minded father Rob (Tim McGraw) struggles to make a go of it breeding quarter horses, with the resilient support of his clear-headed wife Nell (Maria Bello), and isn’t sure what he can expect from Katy or her brawny older brother Howard (Ryan Kwanten).

The transformation taking place throughout the West, in demographics and character, charges the film with a vibrant, and very accurate, undercurrent. In the inflexible, often unrealistic way Rob sticks to time-worn attitudes, this middle-aged cowboy expresses the anxieties of a man who doesn’t want to imagine not passing on his way of life to his kids, but who knows he could cash in by selling his land for subdivision to out-of-state rich folks — it’s happening all around him.

Katy’s behavior exacerbates everything. Not only does it look as though she’ll have to repeat her year at school, but she becomes taken with a wild black mustang she puts in a small corral and begins trying to tame, expressly against her father’s orders. To him, the steed is dangerous, untrainable, worthless. To Katy, Flicka is a reflection of herself, a pure manifestation of the freedom she seeks but which must be harnessed, focused, disciplined.

Conflicts mount steadily in Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner’s economical, cleanly articulated screenplay, which isn’t afraid of high school-level symbolism and metaphors when they happen to be apt and mutually enriching to character and theme. Fed up with his daughter’s obstinacy, Rob sells Flicka (Swedish for “pretty girl”) to become a rodeo horse. Just as Rob feels pushed to the brink of deciding to sell the ranch, Nell, a smart cookie with likely Eastern roots, makes him see the obvious — that Katy is just like him.

This realization doesn’t mean father and daughter don’t continue to butt heads, however, especially when Katy, with Howard’s connivance, dresses like a boy (one with a remarkable resemblance to Johnny Depp) in order to ride Flicka in the summer rodeo’s mustang race to win the money to buy him back. Bracingly, this does not go at all according to plan, or to Hollywood convention these days, but instead leads to near-tragedy and honestly earned emotion, as family members come to see one another for who they are.

Director Michael Mayer, following his uneven but creditable indie feature debut, “A Home at the End of the World,” here fluently negotiates the dramatic fluctuations. His film technique isn’t yet entirely smooth, but he is greatly aided by lenser J. Michael Muro, who debuted as a d.p. on Kevin Costner’s similarly rich and emotive oater “Open Range” and here serves up a darkly textured widescreen tapestry. Cutting is drum tight, and composer Aaron Zigman largely avoids the typical wall-to-wall musical slatherings of most contempo heart-tuggers.

“Flicka” could so easily have gone wrong, in one direction, by being cutesy and manipulative, or in another by indulging in rote dysfunctional family posturing. Mayer steers clear of these shoals thanks to good dramatic instincts and perfectly chosen actors. Lohman, 25 when the film was shot, still passes convincingly as a high schooler and doesn’t sacrifice an ounce of Katy’s intensity by shrewdly underplaying in an ideal performance. Country-Western star McGraw, having passed muster in his bigscreen debut in “Friday Night Lights,” looks like the genuine article as a rancher, and carries off his serious scenes with aplomb. Bello turns what could have been a bland, stand-around-supportively wife into a vibrant woman committed to her husband and creative enough to help him change; the subject is never broached, but McGraw and Bello strongly convey the impression of a still frisky and lusty relationship between long-marrieds.

For the record, O’Hara’s 1941 novel “My Friend Flicka” was first put onscreen in 1943 in a popular Fox release starring Roddy McDowall. O’Hara wrote two sequels, “Thunderhead, Son of Flicka,” in 1943, and “Green Grass of Wyoming,” in 1946, each of which was filmed two years after publication. The well-remembered TV series ran for 39 episodes in 1955-56.

Flicka

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox 2000 Pictures presentation of a Gil Netter production. Produced by Netter. Co-producer, Kevin Halloran. Directed by Michael Mayer. Screenplay, Mark Rosenthal, Lawrence Konner, based on the novel "My Friend Flicka" by Mary O'Hara.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), J. Michael Muro; editor, Andrew Marcus; music, Aaron Zigman; music supervisor, Jason Alexander; production designer, Sharon Seymour; art director, Peter Borck; set designer, Natalie Richards; set decorator, Maggie Martin; costume designer, Molly Maginnis; sound (Dolby/DTS), Richard Van Dyke; sound designer, Paul Urmson; supervising sound editor, Donald Sylvester; stunt coordinator, Keith Adams; assistant director, Doug Metzger; second unit director, Rusty Hendrickson; second unit camera, Dana Gonzales; casting, Mindy Marin, Jim Carnahan. Reviewed at the Grove, Los Angeles, Oct. 14, 2006. (In Heartland, Hollywood film festivals.) MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Katy McLaughlin - Alison Lohman Rob McLaughlin - Tim McGraw Neil McLaughlin - Maria Bello Howard McLaughlin - Ryan Kwanten Gus - Dallas Roberts Norbert Rye - Nick Searcy Jack - Danny Pino Miranda Koop - Kaylee DeFer Rick Koop - Jeffrey Nordling Esther Koop - Dey Young

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