An unbreakable horse, saved by a whisker from the glue factory. A feisty, recently orphaned 16-year-old, determined to save her little brothers from a state home. A crusty, tobacco-spitting ex-cavalryman, saved by the horse and the orphans from the bottle. And that 16-year-old (Melissa Gilbert), saved from a fate worse than. . . .
"Sylvester" (citywide) is a pretty neat movie in many respects, and parents and horse-loving girls may flock to it; what is there to take whole families to, "Tomboy?" But there have hardly been so many "saved froms" since Lillian Gish first bloomed on a screen.
"Sylvester" is a right-now, up-to-date movie, with the language to prove it. But if you set the whole movie around the turn of the century, its lovable orphans, rich guardian angels and almost Victorian turns of plot would seem a lot more at home.
Carol Sobieski, who wrote "Sylvester," also wrote "Casey's Shadow" a few years ago, an eminently believable story about three motherless boys and their curmudgeonly father, with quarter-horse racing as the backdrop. It, too, had children mourning a lost parent; it had an impossibly rich woman horse fancier who might change things forever for the family, and a horse, ridden by a slip of a girl, that triumphs against all odds. But you believed every word those kids said; there was grit--and humor--to that film where there's tapioca to this one, no matter how salty the language.
All this said, "Sylvester's" modern fairy story about a cow horse who goes to the Olympic equestrian trials and a young girl who must face, not waste, her potential is engaging, even exciting. Director Tim Hunter ("Tex") has a self-effacing, no-nonsense style that suits his story nicely, and if you saw "Never Cry Wolf" it should be no surprise that one of "Sylvester's" strongest elements is its extraordinary camera work, since Hiro Narita photographed both films.
Marfa, Tex., is where Charlie (Gilbert) struggles to keep her two young brothers with her after an automobile accident killed their beloved mother and apparently no-good father. She has a job, breaking horses at the stockyard of longtime family friend Richard Farnsworth. (The film has its share of pleasant performances, but Farnsworth's goes far beyond: His self-effacing authenticity becomes the film's bedrock.) However, Gilbert's temper and her refusal to take the bullying of hot-headed, macho co-worker Chris Pederson put both Pederson and Gilbert on reprimand from Farnsworth.
Enter the horse whom Gilbert names Sylvester: huge, gray, unhandsome and unhandleable. Pederson's "breaking" nearly destroys the animal; Gilbert's intuitive understanding of him reclaims him and uncovers his great gifts as a natural jumper.
Ahead lie unemployment, the threat of the splitting-up of the family, a strand of plot with Farnsworth and his relationship to Gilbert's family, and Gilbert's dream of training and selling Sylvester to provide for them all. There is also Michael Schoeffling ("16 Candles"), doggedly in love with Gilbert in spite of rebuffs that would stun an elephant.
But any C. W. Anderson reader worth her salt knows what this movie is really gonna be about: Charlie goes to the Olympics. Right. And there, at the Lexington, Ky., famous international three-day event, horse and rider are severely tested against the finest jumping and dressage riders in the world.
What separates the aspirations of "Sylvester" from, say, "National Velvet," which is really no less a fairy tale, is just how far these film makers want us to go beyond common sense. That an ex-rodeo horse might have a jumping streak is far from impossible. Years ago there was such a wonder jumper, Snowman, a flea-bitten gray reclaimed from the knackers. Where credulity snaps is in Sylvester's accomplishments in dressage (let alone Gilbert's). Dressage is like ballet, it's an inner as well as an outer skill, nothing a crash course can pull together in a few weeks or even months, no matter how great the teachers.
You may not care: Shot from a low angle, frequently from in front of the horses, the riding footage is thrilling, and Gilbert has obviously worked hard to make her riding believable. You may balk at the handsome Olympic rider (Pete Kowanko), thrown into an already overloaded story to stir up trouble between Gilbert and Schoeffling, or wince at the obligatory fight scene between the two men--one of those situations to prove "we don't belong with these people." But when Kentucky horsewoman supreme Constance Towers gasps at Gilbert's exquisite dressage performance, it's easy to join her, and that's really what the young riders came for.
For others, one night shot may be the film's best and most beautiful, Farnsworth secretly schooling Sylvester: In the ice-blue moonlight, horse and rider silently dance together. You can put up with a lot for that one memory.
'SYLVESTER' A Columbia Pictures release of a Rastar production. Producer Martin Jurow. Director Tim Hunter. Screenplay Carol Sobieski. Camera Hiro Narita. Production design James W. Newport. Editors Howard Smith, Suzanne Pettit, David Garfield. Music Lee Holdridge. Sound Peter Hiddal. Costumes Sharon Day. Equestrian consultant Benita Allen. With Richard Farnsworth, Melissa Gilbert, Michael Schoeffling, Constance Towers, Pete Kowanko, Yankton Hatten, Shane Serwin, Chris Pederson.
MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.