I’ve asked this before but it bears repeating: why are wholesome religious family films so often sabotaged by a weak script and less-than-stellar acting? It’s happened again with A Cowgirl’s Story, a 2017 manipulate-you-to-feel-good movie starring Bailee Madison (Brothers, TV’s Good Witch).
Madison, who co-produced the film, is saddled with a script that’s by turns corny, wooden, and cliché-ridden. And on top of all that, this message film doesn’t trust the audience enough to attempt some measure of subtlety. Then again, the audience for the film—God-fearing, military-supporting, small-town America—might be forgiving enough to overlook the many flaws.
Dance Mom fans will like seeing Chloe Lukasiak as something other than a whipping girl for taskmaster Abby Lee Miller. In A Cowgirl’s Story she plays “bad girl” Savannah Stocker, whose father was killed while deployed in Afghanistan and whose mother has withdrawn and (we think—this is the film’s only subtle part) turned to drink. But Lukasiak is a far better dancer than she is an actress—at least at this stage in her career. She’s a bit too rigid and doesn’t have a very convincing range of facial expressions or body language. In fact, she even looks stiff and awkward while performing in a group line dance that the end credits say she choreographed. But in the weak acting department she’s not alone. The other recognizable name, Pat Boone, also disappoints.
Boone never really had the acting chops of that other, more famous singer who went Hollywood. He was good enough as a young man in April Love and State Fair, in which he could sing, and came close to holding his own in the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, where there was enough excitement to distract. But here he’s a grandpa who’s more doddering than doting and whose interactions with granddaughter Dusty Rhodes (Madison) and son (James C. Victor) are almost painfully unconvincing. As a result, Boone seems inserted for one reason: to deliver Bible-based advice and to lead everyone in prayer (which, with “The Lord’s Prayer,” he actually does quite well). Unfortunately, other actors also don’t come close to the performance that Madison delivers.
All that said, the biggest problem with A Cowgirl’s Story is that everything is too far-fetched, familiar, or unbelievably easy. First of all, what group of teenage girls would drink on-campus sitting in bleachers right near the school by passing a bottle inside a paper bag, wino-style, back and forth? I mean, wouldn’t they be sneakier, so as not to get caught? And when new girl Dusty overhears the principal telling troubled teen Savannah (Lukasiak) that this was her last chance and she’s out, is there anyone watching who doesn’t expect Dusty to do what we’ve seen a gazillion times since Jack Lemmon helped out Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot and claim the bottle was really hers?
Then, when Dusty is pushing a library cart with books on what is still presumably her first week and a few books fall, could it be more clichéd than to have a boy (Aidan Alexander as Trevor) pick up that book as their “meet cute”? What’s unexpected, though, is to have them become instant boyfriend-girlfriend, just as Savannah is quickly paired up with a boy named Jason (Froy Gutierrez). It’s just too easy, as anyone currently in high school will attest. Once dance and they’re acting like three-month steadies.
It’s also unreasonably easy for Dusty to get permission to start an equestrian club, and when the principal says “it’s over” because no one has registered to join after an hour or so, the high schoolers (even the ones who ridiculed her) have an “I’m Spartacus” moment, following Savannah’s lead as she joins to even the score. Characters are arrested but promptly released, and though this story takes place in a small town there are students who inexplicably make fun of a girl for wearing cowboy boots. Really? A number of characters either have quick turnarounds or else moments where they behave quite out of character. Part of the problem is that the passage of time isn’t well defined in this film. In what seems like only days or, at best, a few short weeks, teens who never even rode a horse before are suddenly performing at a rodeo event.
The film’s resolution is abruptly convenient, with characters making some pretty major turnarounds based on either one quick moment in church, an equally quick talk, or a visit from Grandpa. And darned if God or fate or the screenwriter doesn’t intervene at the most predictable (yet far-fetched) times. Faith is one thing, but a three-act screenplay is another, and everything in A Cowgirl’s Story is too remarkably easy for it to be believable drama. A Cowgirl’s Story presents a girl who has a mild crisis of faith after a death —a crisis we don’t necessarily believe because she goes about her business so cheerily, whether it’s helping Savannah or spending time with her equestrian group. And this, despite the trauma of her father leaving (and quickly returning wounded—again, time frame seems ill defined) and her mother MIA in Afghanistan.
A Cowgirl’s Story is directed by Timothy Armstrong, who also directed Cowgirls ‘n Angels (2012) and Cowgirl’s ‘n Angels 2: Dakota’s Summer (2014). I reviewed Dakota’s Summer and gave it a B, but apart from Madison, Armstrong doesn’t have the same level of talent to work with here, and the script he came up with is just too facile. Horse-lovers will wish there were more equestrian scenes, and the target audience—many of whom agree with Trump’s policies on immigration and Muslims—may wonder why there is a scene castigating people for spraypainting “Go Home” on the car of a teen who wears a hijab.
In the end, A Cowgirl’s Story is the kind of film that young girls ages 8 to 10 might like, but teens will find it just too eye-rolling . . . and many parents will join them. That’s too bad, because there was potential here for it to be a family movie as good as Dakota’s Summer.
Violence: n/a; even the “bad” kids are wholesome
Adult situations: Brief teen drinking (though it doesn’t even look like there’s a bottle in that bag) and a breaking-and-entering arrest
Takeaway: It’s not the infusion of religion that drags this film down; it’s that everything is just too easy, too unrealistic, and, ultimately, too unbelievable