Starring Nikki DeLoach, Scott Porter, Corbin Bernsen, and Janine Turner
I don't usually write reviews for Rom Com movies that aren't part of a series. Not because I don't love them, you know I do, but because there isn't usually enough character development to warrant a full blog. A simple rating of 1 to 5 stars will more than suffice. Yet, as I watched "Taking the Reins" last night as it debuted on Hallmark Channel, I found myself invested in the characters. Yes, the movie focuses on a two-week period in the life of Sam - a writer who returns home to write an article that she hopes will be cover-worthy of the magazine for which she works. But without the aid of flashbacks, the viewer is able to have a glimpse into Sam's entire life...which is the mark of a really well done movie.
So what do we find out during the course of the movie? We learn Sam's childhood was filled with trips with her dad to compete in equestrian competitions; she was married young to a horse trainer who thought he wasn't worthy of her; her husband "broke up" with her and subsequently divorced her a month before a major competition in which she fell and then left the sport; she and her sister are close and supportive, but there's a history of Sam being the star in the family; Sam and her dad have grown apart and she doesn't visit home that often. The beauty in the script and some of the moments that were added in by the actors themselves is that we are shown and not told. We're never told why Sam left, we are instead privy to a conversation that she has that lets us understand what has happened. We're not told by Sam that she's a bit lost, or that she's built walls around her heart, we are there with her as her editor deflates her ego and as her ex husband asks her if she's capable of following his directions so he can train her. We watch as Sam becomes defensive and annoyed in the first scene of the movie - she's on a date with a man whose name she can't remember and focuses instead on the tv in the bar that is showing an equestrian competition. Sam explains to - what's your name again? - that competing in the sport requires sacrifice and giving up the normal things in life we take for granted, like time with friends and family. We are shown Sam's childhood bedroom which has a giant 'S' on the wall, similar to the one on the coffee mug she drinks from at home - this is a woman who has a strong identity in her name, in her history.
So is the movie about an equestrian competition at the family business? Yes, on the surface. It's that familiar story of the prodigal child returning home for an event and saving the family's business from being sold - though the horse angle was a unique and beautiful departure from the usual winery or pear/pumpkin farm. But this movie gives us other layers to examine, relationships to ponder. It made me stop and ask myself - do Luke and Sam have a shot at surviving a second chance? How do I feel about the idea of a divorced couple finding their way back to one another? It's obvious throughout the movie that Sam and Luke still love one another, and during one of their sparrings - Sam tells Luke that love was never an issue, it was everything else that tore them apart. This scene is especially poignant. In Sam's direct manner, she asks Luke point blank if he loves her. She's a hurting woman, searching for why the man she loved abandoned her. There's no hinting, there's no hesitation, there's only raw emotion. The scene is so well acted by both Nikki and Scott - the viewer feels the anxiety in both their responses. You want to run between them and tell them it was all a mistake - to try again - this time they can find a way to make it all work. But instead - Luke crosses the divide between them and kisses Sam, rather passionately.
At first glance - the viewer sighs and is relieved. Yes, love conquers all! They're finding their way back to one another. But, is that what just happened? Throughout the movie we are learning that Luke is all about feelings, while Sam is all about discipline, thinking about things, and putting her training in her sport to use in her life. So where Luke needed her to feel and express emotion, Sam we must assume would worry and fret and find faults - like the judges do in her sport. There's definitely evidence Sam lived her life trying to measure up to some imagined level of success. Where Sam needed Luke to be steady, even, and committed, we must assume Luke was overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt and ran away from Sam rather than learned how to stay and finish the course despite the setbacks. So here they are - needing the same things from one another again - and rather than give Sam the thoughts she needs from Luke, he gives her raw emotion. How do a "thinker" and a "feeler" learn to love?
In this story, the "thinker" realizes all her thinking has led her to close herself off from life, both personally and professionally. Early on her editor tells Sam she must "put herself in the story" - and Sam finally learns how to do that. Sam faces her fears about "getting back on the horse" and allowing life to offer her a second chance. Sam learns from her father that what she thought he needed from her wasn't at all what was important to him. She accepts from herself that her dream is writing, not being an equestrian champion or running the family "farm". Sam begins to understand that her feelings are not to be feared or ignored, but embraced and used along with her thoughts to make her life balanced and whole. Sam is a growing, evolving character who allows the viewer to take a ride with her as she takes the reins back on her runaway life.
"Taking the Reins" is an enjoyable Rom Com. There are cute and sassy moments, a little humor and sweetness sprinkled in with both the sister and the bakery owner, and a story that has depth and thought-provoking themes. Learning that Sam's mother and father (acted beautifully by Corbin and Janine) had a hand in all that has happened was a nice element to the story. On the other hand, the required nod to black/white relationships and gay relationships seemed contrived and out of place - the viewer could tell it was thrown in for effect. And as is usual, the music was more than annoying at some points. But the acting was what made this movie exceptional in the genre. Both Nikki and Scott poured themselves into these characters and I have to wonder had anyone else been cast in the parts if I would be writing this blog at all. The emotion was real, and at times very raw, and the viewer couldn't help but become invested in the story and characters. For the first 'divorced couple reunites' plot aired on Hallmark in a very long time (I think back to Roma Downey and Tim Mathison in "Second Honeymoon" or Roma's "Come Dance at My Wedding" with John Schneider, or even Nikki's "Cranberry Christmas" from last year on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries) it made a familiar farm story completely different and wholly entertaining. I teared up more than once and cheered at both the competition and the ending when Sam gets her power back and finally takes the reins on her own life. This one's a keeper.
Photo credit: Crown Media & Nikki DeLoach's Instagram