Once a promising young equestrian, Debi Walden (Nikki Reed) now mucks out the stables at a horse ranch where snooty, less talented rich folks mock her fall from grace. But when Debi out-rides former rival Elise Dumont (Cassi Thompson), Jonathan Collier (Ryan Merriman) realizes she is still a formidable rider. He encourages Debi to get back in the saddle and compete in the national showjumping championships. Despite strong opposition from her father (Gary Grubbs) and sceptical stable boss Bonnie (Mandy Jane Turpin), Debi finds encouragement from her mother (Linda Hamilton) and financial support from entrepreneur Mr. Valentine (Ving Rhames). In time Debi finds the 'miracle horse' she was searching for, a spirited stallion she names 'The Evangelist', but faces an uphill battle in pursuit of her dream.
What is it about films about race horses? From timeless classics like National Velvet (1944) and The Black Stallion (1979) to more recent gems such as Dreamer (2005), no matter how blatantly they mine our emotions somehow the feel-good factor remains irresistible almost every time. For his third outing as a director legendary stuntman and stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong makes a surprise venture into family films here. The subject matter seems less surprising when one factors in Armstrong is not only a lifelong horseman himself but his father coached the UK's Equestrian team through five Olympic Games. A Sunday Horse is inspired by the true story of Debi Walden Connor, a rider and trainer from Ocala, Florida although the screenplay by Susan Rhinehart, adapted from an earlier script written by Fred T. Kuehnert, relocates events from the 1980s to the present day and takes predictable liberties with real life events.
By far the film's greatest asset is a thoroughly engaging lead turn from Nikki Reed, an actress too often undervalued since she co-wrote and starred in Thirteen (2003). Older than the wide-eyed kids or ingenues usually cast in horse movies, Reed brings more spirit and depth of character to Debi, a former champion who lacks money and self-worth but has lost none of her fire. Debi's search for a miracle is really a search for self-validation in the face of relentless skepticism from loved ones and rivals alike along with seemingly insurmountable odds. The script has a strong religious angle with musings about God, miracles and finding evidence of the divine in common everyday decency. In the manner of God's Not Dead (2014), Heaven is for Real (2014) and Do You Believe? (2015) it is likely this independent production was part-funded by religious organizations. Nevertheless its theological preoccupations are not preachy at all but understated and tempered by an earthiness, an understanding of the complexities of human dilemmas. The film also stirs in a potent anti-racist satire as Debi and Mr. Valentine discover common ground in the prejudice they each face as respectively a working class woman and black man attempting to breach the largely white and privileged arena of equestrianism.
At the risk of offending fans, showjumping is arguably a less cinematic sport than horse racing. As such Armstrong skips briskly through a lot of Debi's failures and victories on the circuit and focuses on the tragedies that throw numerous obstacles for her to overcome. Even so the warmhearted script has real poetry to it and Armstrong invests the film lyrical moments that complement the likable characters. As a story A Sunday Horse is a textbook definition of inspiring and uplifting right down to the finale that will prompt lesser men to tears. Not me though, I just had something in my eye.