Supposed delinquent 'Sparke' Thornton (Lon McCallister) is sent to live at a floundering farm run by his Aunt Penny (Charlotte Greenwood) and Uncle 'Thunder' Bolt (Walter Brennan). For all his bad boy antics, Sparke loves horses and is drawn to the more prosperous stable next door belonging to Thunder's arch rival. By pacifying an unruly black stallion he impresses horse trainer Jed Bruce (Ward Bond) along with the owner's beautiful daughter 'Cri-Cri' Boole (June Haver) but his rough handling of another horse angers Jed's pony-loving daughter 'Char' (Jeanne Crain) who sets him straight. Sparke learns from his mistake and displays a gentler touch with horses that sets Char's heart a-flutter. So she secretly helps Sparke mate the stallion with Thunder's ailing mare to sire a sturdy racing horse to turn their fortunes round. Time passes, as the foal grows and so do Char's feelings for Sparke even though he seemingly only has eyes for her best friend, Cri-Cri.
Home in Indiana is sort of a National Velvet for boys. Produced by Twentieth Century Fox as a robust alternative to the 'girlier' MGM classic it has an ever-so-slightly harder shell if no less gooey centre. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Edward Cronjager conjures golden glowing images of rural Indiana to elaborate upon the opening narration's assertion that horse racing at the county fair is "as American as America itself." The film evokes a simplistic yet still charming notion that the American heartland is so wholesome and invigorating it can heal physical, mental, emotional and spiritual problems. As portrayed by fresh-faced Lon McCallister, Sparke does not come across anything like as bad a boy as the script implies. Nevertheless the thrust of the plot is that the young hero needs direction just like Walter Brennan's far more convincingly troubled, depressed alcoholic is in need of salvation.
Henry Hathaway is known for sturdier westerns rather than family fare and so adds a touch of grit. Take for example Thunder's rage on discovering what Sparke has done which briefly takes the film to an unexpectedly dark place when he takes a strap to the boy then swerves into wry comedy when they emerge firm friends much to Aunt Penny's confusion. Episodic, this lacks the clearly defined character arc that makes National Velvet so much more than a film about a horse. Truth be told the sweet coming of age romance proves more engaging than the equine angle. Screenwriter Winston Miller wisely avoids labouring the love triangle and instead lets things unfold in a more gentle, observational manner well served by the endearing performances from McCallister, Jeanne Crain and June Haver. The unwavering friendship between Cri-Cri and Char and warmth between Char and her father, who without tipping his hand gently acknowledges her feelings for Sparke, add an extra dimension to the story. Given her later glamorous roles Jeanne Crain makes a surprisingly convincing tomboy while June Haver also makes a vivid impression and stirred some censorship issues at the time with her skimpy bathing suit. On the downside one could politely describe the film's portrayal of African-American characters as of its time. Once the plot gets into the nitty-gritty of racing Home in Indiana grows rather more conventional and lacks tension despite throwing a few heart-rending obstacles along the way.
McCallister, a bland yet competent lead, re-teamed with June Haver in the delightfully named Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (1948) and went on to play a jockey once again in The Story of Seabiscuit (1949) opposite Shirley Temple, but never became a really big star.