A funny thing happens in the opening moments of the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award-winning doc “Dark Horse.” The movie swells with unusual pride, inspiration and hope. Well-crafted visuals, homespun wistful folk songs by Anne Nikitin and sanguine testimonials tug on your heartstrings. Before the opening credits roll, the subjects of the documentary discuss their faded dreams, depressed town and the unlikely animal that transformed their lives, and so “Dark Horse” lays out the emotional building blocks for what appears will be a moving, triumphant come-from-behind story. It’s disarming how the doc, without having revealed its full story or earned its emotional stripes yet, hooks you in…or hoofs you in.
Then “Dark Horse” hits reset and begins properly as a fairy tale about small-town hopefulness rescued by an unlikely source of inspiration. In an impoverished ex-mining town in Wales, unassuming townsfolk go about their day. Through fate, barmaid Jan Vokes overhears a conversation about a local who used to breed horses as a hobby but has recently given it up in order to contend with impressive debt. Much to the chagrin of her husband, Vokes is captivated by the idea of breeding a race horse and… they’re off! Her infectious energy and determination convinces a group of friends from a workingman’s club to pool their limited resources to buy and breed a horse, and the gangly contender they raise turns out to be an extraordinarily willful champion exceeding all expectations.
Directed by Louise Osmond (“Deep Water” “The Beckoning Silence”), “Dark Horse” is crowd-pleasing and rousing, but its biggest problem is that no successive part of the documentary can sustain the power of its opening prologue. When the film resets in the beginning to tell its tale in full, it’s as if the documentary is recounting the long form version of what we’ve already already seen: this plucky group produces a champion against all odds. It’s like an essay in which the author has slaved over the opening paragraph to grab the reader’s attention, but neglects the substance of what follows.
“Dark Horse” succeeds when exploring class: “the sport of kings” is for the elite, and when the locals’ horse Dream Alliance arrives on the scene, even their own trainers are dubious. The horse is barely rated and the coalition is hardly acknowledged, but slowly and surely, Dream Alliance cannot be denied. Yet later, a brutally debilitating injury sidelines the horse, but this turn of events is not addressed satisfactorily. The fine line between prideful wish-fulfillment and cruelty to animals is extremely thin.
“Dark Horse” has all the ingredients of a heartswelling rags-to-riches drama. The narrative is agreeable, but is completely telegraphed at the outset. “Dark Horse” is a gentle, winning beautiful little story — it would seem churlish to deny the accomplishments of the people of this sleepy mining village. But at an scant 86 minutes, the repetition of inch-by-inch mini-milestones suggest a doc that might have been better served as a 30-minute short. “Dark Horse” is crowd-pleasing and sometimes even amiably moving, but never quite essential. [B-]