Based on a true story, the 1991 film Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken tells the story of an orphan girl named Sonora (played by Gabrielle Anwar) whose beloved horse is sold off by her aunt—a punishment for her bad behavior.
Sneaking off into the night, Sonora takes to the road in search of a traveling diving horse show. That's right, a TRAVELING DIVING HORSE SHOW!
As a girl, I loved that Sonora's diving horse, Lightning, looked like my horse Shoshona—stunning, tall and all muscle, silver coat with a black mane and tail, a small snip of pink on the tip of her muzzle. After watching the movie, I cut my hair into a chin length bob and wore my breeches and tall riding boots every day that summer, just like Sonora, despite the suffocating Fresno, California heat. Each evening, my boots, sticky with sweat and dirt, clung to my calves. I had to sit on the floor, legs in the air, while my mother pried them off for me.
The film still resonates with me in adulthood but for very different reasons. Before I was simply attracted to the story of a girl and her horse because I was lucky enough to have a horse. But now I'm more interested in what the story says about girlhood. What does this film tell us about the types of things girls can do? About beauty? About independence?
After the loss of her parents, Sonora is rootless. Taking to the road, she is free to follow her wandering heart. All alone, with no money, she is somehow confident that she'll make it, that everything will work out. After finding her way to the diving horse show, surly and gruff Dr. Carver (Cliff Robertson) refuses her, explaining that she isn't strong enough or a show-woman. But the precocious girl refuses to leave. The current diving horse star, Marie, is very much conventionally feminine, clad in a white dress and pristine white gloves. Sonora is not, with her bare face and shabby clothes and her free-moving body. But Dr. Carver sees something in Sonora, as we knew he would, and offers her a job shoveling manure and caring for the horses.
The outspoken girl who isn't afraid to work hard and get dirty is celebrated in this narrative. She's strong and at home in her body. In one notable scene, Dr. Carver tells Sonora that if she can mount the horse as it gallops by he will train her as a diving girl. On her first try Sonora crashes to the ground, nearly breaking her nose. Dr. Carver pushes her to keep going. Fall after fall, Sonora continues to get up. Blood is smeared across her sleeve and her face. He asks her, "You going to cry?" To which she responds, "I never cry." Again and again she tries and falls on her face. Finally, she thrusts herself onto Lightning's back. She glows in the triumph of her success.
Sonora falls in love with Dr. Carver's son, Al (Michael Schoeffling), but for the most part this romantic story line remains secondary. Even after their relationship unfolds, Sonora remains independent. In one of the final scenes, Sonora, blind yet compelled to dive again, sneaks into the barn. She does this alone—and this seems to be integral. It is dark and stormy. The thunder vibrates. But Lightning isn't afraid. He remains still as she runs her fingers over his body, memorizing it—thin fingers tracing the outlines of his muscles, pressing into his coat. On his back, Sonora sits tall. She is satisfied and proud.
I cannot help but feel uneasy about the end of the film: Sonora and Al live happily ever after, with no further mention of Lightning or the diving show. And I am deeply troubled by the real life stories of diving shows, as they were exceptionally cruel (as is often the case when money is made off of horses). But despite all that, the film sends a strong message to women that we don't have to subscribe to traditional modes of femininity if they doesn't fit; that being tough and outspoken isn't a bad thing.
More importantly: when "home" just doesn't feel right anymore we can set to wandering, wild and free. That's something that feels especiallly compelling now in adulthood as uncertainty and responsibility settles in.