Based on a 1941 bestseller by Mary O'Hara, Flicka shows how a young girl matures while trying to tame a wild mustang. The film's themes, updated a bit but still fairly true to the novel's, may be simple, but they are still worthwhile ones. A committed cast and sensitive direction help lift Flicka above its niche market of young horse lovers.
The biggest change from the novel is the lead character, once a boy but now the rebellious, hotheaded daughter of a Wyoming rancher. Katy McLaughlin (Alison Lohman) is failing at the expensive boarding school her parents can barely afford, and capturing and training a mustang may be just another way of ignoring her responsibilities. Katy has trouble communicating with her equally headstrong father Rob (Tim McGraw), and is trying the patience of her mother Nell (Maria Bello). Her brother Howard (Ryan Kwanten) hasn't worked up the courage to tell Rob that he wants to go away to college. The ranch, dedicated to training quarter horses for rodeos, is on its last legs, and the presence of a wild mustang could threaten the purity of the herd. By keeping Flicka, Katy will not only be disobeying her parents, but threatening their livelihood.
Director Michael Mayer doesn't push the plot's morals, focusing instead on location scenery and some well-staged action scenes. One stampede along the edge of a cliff is beautiful and thrilling at the same time, and Flicka's training sequences have moments that seem genuinely risky. When they arrive, the family arguments are persuasively tight-lipped and restrained, with more left unsaid than resolved. Credit should go to the strong supporting cast, especially Dallas Roberts as a taciturn ranch hand and Kwanten as a son who feels trapped by his obligations.
This is country singer Tim McGraw's second film role, after a significant supporting part in Friday Night Lights. His screen presence is undeniable, but he still needs to learn how to modulate the way he delivers his lines. (He does contribute an excellent tearjerker, "Where Did I Go Right," to the soundtrack.) Lohman nails the headstrong aspect of her character, but neglects somewhat to bring out Katy's softer side. Maria Bello, on the other hand, seems to be overcompensating. Her acting is so brisk and professional that it tends to throw the film out of balance.
The big sky, windswept plains, and drifts and folds of the Wyoming mountains captured by J. Michael Muro's cinematography forgive a lot, if not all, of the film's shortcomings. Flicka's simplicity may be its best attribute, that and the opportunity it provides viewers to imagine life on a ranch today. (For the record, Roddy McDowall starred in the original 1943 film version, My Friend Flicka, and in its 1945 sequel, Thunderhead--Son of Flicka.)