For all those who’ve been patiently awaiting the definitive family horse flick for the tween set, there is, at long last, The Greening of Whitney Brown, a saddles-and-sass mash-up whose most telling image is an equine hoof painted electric pink. The gal of the title is a giddy, urbanized, emoticon-loving eighth-grader, and if you’re not one yourself, it’s best to try channeling the species if you hope to enjoy such a niche-targeted bauble. “I’m an American princess,” chirps the tra-la-lollipop opening track, which accompanies a slideshow on a bejeweled pink iPhone, a pint-sized nod to Carrie Bradshaw. All wireless but for having the world on a string, prima donna Whitney (Sammi Hanratty) is class president at her Philadelphia school, has a Heathers-style posse of minions, is courting the new football star, and wants “nothing less” than Marc Jacobs couture for her kiddie prom dress. But when Whitney’s dad, Henry (Aidan Quinn), becomes a recession statistic, and when the credit card she borrows from her mom, Joan (Brooke Shields), is declined by the folks sending mountains of swag to her doorstep, Whitney is forced to downgrade to the family’s Pennsylvania farm, where there’s nothing to do but pal around with a preternaturally intuitive horse named Odd Job Bob.
As strictly a bubbly, genial pastime for young girls, The Greening of Whitney Brown has its merits, and it works when it needs to, such as during quiet scenes with Whitney and her new Gypsy Vanner stallion. Even if it’s not your bag, the film does possess its own Pepto-hued point of view, and there’s something moderately worthwhile about the wisdom Whitney gains after severing ties with her fairyland of texts and entitlement. Then there’s everything else.
The first strike against the movie is that the awkward and diminutive Hanratty is never even slightly convincing as an enviable teenage diva, and surely not as the most popular girl in school. Her looks and instincts are more amenable to her work in a recent American Girl installment, which somehow convinced first-time director Peter Odiorne that she could pull off spoiled bitchery a la Mean Girls’s Regina George. When the family reaches the estranged ranch, she’s tasked to do the hunt-for-cell-service, fish-out-of-water bit, which only pays dividends when nature snaps back in the form of a slippery log or a precarious tree branch. Humbling the anti-heroine is the aim of Gail Gilchriest’s plot-hole-peppered, uneven, and oft-condescending script, which presents Whitney as being initially ignorant of credit cards altogether, but perfectly aware of how and when to use words like “fumigate” (a far more egregious lapse in logic sees her wielding the knowhow to check her voicemail from a land line, but at a dumbfounded loss when encountering a payphone, which she says she’s only seen in movies despite the fact that they’re all over Philadelphia).
A native of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Odiorne is yet another Philadelphia-area filmmaker wildly out of touch with his home city, and perfectly content with perpetuating the outsider’s notion that Mayberry lies just a pebble’s throw beyond its limits. Like M. Night Shyamalan before him, Odiorne paints Philadelphia’s outskirts as a ludicrously idyllic land that time forgot, where the school students milk cows in the classroom and sew their own clothes instead of study algebra (he then proceeds, contrary to all that he’s rendered, to include an anti-labeling scene in which two girls insist, “Hey, we’re no hicks”). The Brown ranch itself is a risibly fecund Eden, where carrots are plentiful, fish all but leap onto your plate, and fresh blackberries grow wild, giving way to a true down-home subplot in which Joan dons torn jeans and revives an old jam recipe that, naturally, starts to replenish the family’s bank account when she sells jars out of the back of a dusty pickup. As a former Philadelphian, I can say with a certain authority that you’d have to travel a little further than two hours outside the city proper to find so wholly, cartoonishly archaic a place. You most certainly wouldn’t travel back to the city from such a place on horseback, which is what Whitney attempts as the film nears its climax. Dutifully reformed thanks to Bob and her back-in-the-picture grandpa (Kris Kristofferson), Whitney confronts her old friends and frenemies at her Philly school’s much-ballyhooed formal. “That’s the horse I rode in on,” Whitney says when Bob gallops in too. And just when you think things are getting way too plausible, Whitney, Gramps, and Bob all hitch a ride back to the farm—in a Mini Cooper.