Critics tend to look down on movies like Flicka, the new film based on the oldtime bestselling novel My Friend Flicka, which has been filmed a couple of times previously, about an adolescent girl who adopts a wild horse against her parents’ wishes.
Flicka fails to undermine bourgeois values, show the family to be an outmoded and socially destructive phonomenon, attack free enterprise as an invitation to greed and exploitation, and demonstrate the superiority of personal autonomy and pleasure-seeking over selfish, socially destructive notions such as duty, honor, and decency.
But that is what makes the movie most interesting and gives it a certain amount of moral complexity.
Flicka vividly depicts how individuals’ desires can conflict with others’ needs, but it comes down strongly on the side of duty, honor, self-sacrifice, and other such traditional notions. Alison Lohman plays Katy McLaughlin, a sixteen-year-old Wyoming girl whose family operates a horse ranch that is on the verge of bankruptcy. She finds a wild mustang horse which she wishes to tame and train, but her father objects.
Naturally, Katy decides to defy him in secret, surreptitiously working to make the exceedingly wild horse trust her. Meanwhile, her father and mother struggle to keep the ranch from financial ruin.
The family conflicts in the film are highly plausible and presented with great realism and persuasiveness. Even though we never believe that the family will be torn apart (this is, after all, a film geared toward children), we do see and understand how easily that can happen but for the strong values and leadership of both parents, played superbly in the film by Maria Bello and Tim McGraw. Flicka never skims over the frustrations of family life, which makes its treatment of the conflicts, and their ultimate resolution, that much more affecting.
The theme of freedom is strong in the film, and it is explicitly connected to contemporary political concerns in a nonpartisan, general way, which works very well. One can see an influence of the great Hollywood director Howard Hawks behind the film, with its strong female characters, thematic conflicts between the individual and the group, love for the American West, assertion of the value of individualism and political and social freedom within a conservative context, and the evident sheer joy in hard work and personal accomplishments.
As those familiar with the book or the previous film versions will be well aware, several other difficulties and conflicts arise, and all ultimately works out as it should. In that way, too, Flicka resembles a Hawks film. Ultimately, it does have a couple of sappy moments—when, for example, unhappy events tend to happen during rainstorms—but overall it’s an interesting, morally engaging film that merits more credit than most critics are likely to give it. Let’s hope audiences make up for it.