- Movie Rating -

Sylvester (1985)

| March 15, 1985

Just a few days after being surprised by Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask, I was again surprised by Tim Hunter’s Sylvester.  Both films seem cut from the same cloth – emotional dramas about brave and plucky people who defy the odds.  What they have in common is that they defy the common ground of their genre and arrive as something special.

Sylvester isn’t quite the equal of Mask, but I found it absorbing in the way that movies like this rarely have the courage.  It’s a girl-and-her-horse movie and so automatically, my grumpy wall of cynicism went up.  I guarded myself against what I just knew was going to be a cliché ridden snoozefest.  But somehow the movie broke through and I enjoyed it very much.

The movie stars Melissa Gilbert as Charlie, a tough and resourceful teenage girl who is forced to raise her two younger siblings alone and works to keep the courts from putting them in foster care.  Meanwhile, her dream is to train horses and her immediate focus falls on an undisciplined specimen that she finds at a livestock auction whom she names Sylvester, after Sylvester Stallone.  He’s not exactly the first horse that you’d imagine defying the odds at the Olympics Games, but Charlie sees potential in him.

Charlie believes in this horse, but she needs help and so she turns to a washed-up, drunken old cowpoke named Foster to help her out.  She needs a home for herself and her siblings and she needs his expertise in training Sylvester.  He doesn’t see the potential in this animal, and besides, he has no intention of being a father figure to anyone.  He’s paid his dues in life and doesn’t feel that he owes any more, but of course, he bends and they form a bond that is much more substantial than a movie like this usually allows.

Of course, anyone who has ever seen a horse-training movie will recognize the template here.  The scenes of training are obligatory.  So are the scenes in which Charlie and the horse must stumble and fall.  And yes, there’s a scene in which the horse makes it all the way to the steeplechase.  But it’s the connective tissue that makes the movie work.  I loved the relationship between Charlie and her two younger brothers.  I liked her relationship with Foster.  And I even like the obligatory relationship between she and her boyfriend.  There’s an Earthy quality to all of this that raises it above the usual sports movie cliches.

Part of this is because the movie is directed by Tim Hunter, who also made the excellent adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s Tex with Matt Dillon.  He knows how to pull his characters out of the doldrum and make them seem real.  He knows how to turn cliched scenes into something natural and surprising.  And here’s he’s made a very effective movie that is cliched but never off-putting.  This is a special movie.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1985) View IMDB Filed in: Drama