Reel Dad: 'Jockey' takes us to the races at Sundance

"Jockey" was screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

"Jockey" was screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Film Festival / Contributed photo

Films that make us feel help us forget the ones that disappoint.

Magically, sometimes surprisingly, good films tell stories that engage our minds, develop characters that touch our hearts, and convey messages that capture our hopes and allay our fears. And when they make us feel we experience marvelous journeys.

Filmmaker Clint Bentley knows his way around a horse track. As the son of a jockey, he holds the hidden layers of such locations in the deep corners of his creative imagination, incorporating moments saved in his memory for crucial moments in his film. And the movie he directs, “Jockey,” grabs us from its first moments with a level of authentic humanity that immediately makes us feel we’re at home. Bentley helps us get to know some people who will stick with us for a long time.

A jockey named Jackson loves the world of horse racing. This is home, no matter the dirt on the track, the disappointments of some races, the wear and tear on the body. For all his life, this has been his life, since his father, also a jockey, introduced him to this world. Jackson realizes, as the film opens, that he will ultimately age beyond the age when he can ride. That’s something to worry about tomorrow. Today there’s a new horse to learn and a fresh race to run. But the routine that defines his days and nights soon changes when he befriends a young man who arrives at the track.

The details of the “Jockey” storyline matter less than the scope of the narrative. Each moment Jackson faces lets us deeper into his world, the ups and downs that he hides, the pains he tries to overlook, the realities he hopes to dismiss. Bentley knows this character so well that he comfortably places the man into every part of the racetrack environment, making us feel we are watching, in real time, a man simply trying to manage his life.

At the movies, movies about race horses tend to focus on the crowds that roar as the horses compete. We never see those anxious gamblers in “Jockey,” instead Bentley finds the world behind the scenes more compelling to share. That creative choice - to reach beyond what we may expect from a film about horse racing - gives the director the freedom to make this story about this man who gives his life to a purpose he cherishes. We feel we are there, in the stalls, in the barn, inside the world that defines this weathered soul. As Jackson, Clifton Collins, Jr. digs into his layers as an actor to bring a man to life, using every expression to convey a man hanging on to the life he knows. Bentley fills the background behind the actor with actual workers at a track in Arizona where he shot the film, a choice that enhances the sense that we are there.

When we watch horses race, we pull for the favorite to win. “Jockey” helps us feel what victory can actually cost.

“Jockey” runs 1 hour, 34 minutes. For more information about this year’s Sundance Film Festival, go to festival.sundance.org .

Summary: Jockey

Content: High. Director Clint Bentley's journey behind the scenes of a horse race track offers meaningful lessons on the challenges of aging and ambition.

Entertainment: High. Bentley's exploration of people behind horses creates a captivating journey.

Message: High. Because Bentley knows horse racing so well, the authenticity of the world on screen makes the lessons from the film credible.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to learn from people we may never meet in real life can help us understand those we do meet.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie can prompt conversation between you and your older children about how people can learn to give each other the benefit of the doubt, on or off a horse track.