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Unbridled (2017) Review

Unbridled is a 2017 drama about a healing ranch for challenged teen girls in North Carolina that tells a tremendous story of redemption and triumph, with a message of unconditional love.

Quality inspirational movies for teen girls can be a hard find with so many distractions tempting the target audience to other diversions. It can feel impossible to get a powerful and effective movie message across that educates about identity, smart choices, and having good character. John David Ware‘s latest Unbridled, a surprisingly sensitive film on the subject, packs a lot into its runtime, covering a number of bases to deliver its message, and while it might overextend on some of it, nonetheless does what it sets out to do, stirring hope for girls in trouble.

Sarah (Téa Mckay) is a 16-year-old girl trapped in a highly abusive household. Her mother Karen (Dey Young) is an alcoholic and her mother’s boyfriend Roger (Eric Roberts) forces Sarah into sex trafficking. It’s taught Sarah to loathe herself and become isolated at school, though her only friend Kenny (David Topp) recognizes something isn’t right and with the help of their teacher (Brandy Renee Brown), gets her rescued and placed in a home for girls called Safe Haven. From there, she is enrolled in the nearby program at a horse ranch named Unbridled where she joins others, working with horses to learn about healing and responsibility. It’s a difficult journey, one that requires big steps for both Sarah and her mother … and a horse named Dreamer.

Unbridled touches on serious issues but never exploits them, leaving the horror of what happens to Sarah in the peripheral, even though their effects are impactful. This is a film stripped of the visual agony of what these girls have suffered, instead putting the emphasis on their healing, making it a gentle, easy to watch experience for the whole family that still invites questions and conversation when it’s over. That’s a good thing. Ware is careful to keep Unbridled low-key and straightforward, never dipping into contrivances the premise might encourage. Yes, it’s working on a low budget, but what’s truly surprising is how easily it is to become invested in Sarah’s story, let alone the others in her ‘herd’ as they are called.

Based on the very real healing ranch in North Carolina called Corral Riding Academy, Unbridled is a genuinely touching story that might not have the sheen of a big budget film, with its soft piano score and limited action, but does work hard to reach out and offer hope. While it certainly suggests a few faith-based themes, it never uses religion as a foothold to tell its story, allowing the moments that do spring up as such to feel organic. The message here is one of personal growth and unconditional love, and the filmmakers leave it up to the viewer to find that on their own.

Newcomer McKay, in her first feature length film, is very convincing, a natural, believable actress with good presence. She’s easily identifiable for teens and while her story is dark, she, like the others in the program, are all portrayed with great authenticity, the film treating the girls with humanity rather than stereotypical ‘movie’ teens obsessed with smartphones and sex. Roberts unsurprisingly plays the bad guy and takes to it with relish though the film goes too far with his arc, adding an unnecessary finale that stretches credibility. It’s a minor issue, as all he’s meant to do is be very, very bad. Young on the other hand, is sensational.

Unbridled is a well-acted, high quality young adult movie that delivers an important message for its teen audience, avoiding melodramatics in pursuit of its message. Never preachy, there is a lot of good happening here that parents can feel good about in choosing a family movie night. A girl and her horse are surely a movie trope by now, but that shouldn’t stop you from sharing with your daughters (and sure, your sons) this moving story of strength and courage.

Unbridled (2017) Review

Movie description: Unbridled is a 2017 drama about a healing ranch for challenged teen girls in North Carolina that tells a tremendous story of redemption and triumph, with a message of unconditional love.

Director(s): John David Ware

Actor(s): Eric Roberts, T.C. Stallings, Téa Mckay

Genre: Drama

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