When I was in fifth grade, my school’s teachers went on strike for a couple of months. Rather than send all us kids home and hold us back a grade, the school enlisted picket-line-crossing substitute teachers, who the school would bus in from wherever they parked their cars. Some of the teachers were better than others—I remember never really grasping some complex math issue until one sub explained it in a much more coherent fashion than my teacher ever did—but others were clearly there just to get a paycheck. They often read from the textbook aloud and gave us worksheet after worksheet, pretty much expecting us to teach ourselves.
Those were also the teachers who relied heavily on movies. Not educational movies, mind you, but accessible movies that they threw on for 45 minutes to pass the time and regain their sanity. But we couldn’t watch anything too sexy, violent, or even slightly interesting. There were very few that made the cut, and those that did got passed from class to class, teacher to teacher. And that’s how I ended up seeing Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken six times in just a few short months.
A G-rated live-action Disney movie from 1991, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken tells the story of Sonora Webster, a Depression-era kid who runs away from her aunt’s home after her parents die and she’s threatened with foster care. She wants to eventually land in Atlantic City, “where all your dreams come true,” but she settles for a gig as a stable hand, hoping one day to move up the ranks and become a “diving girl.” She’s not going to be diving by herself; rather, she wants to be part of a diving horse act, in which a young, lovely girl mounts a running horse as it jumps off a high tower into a smallish pool of water. Long story short, Sonora eventually gets the job, only to have a tragic accident during her first show in Atlantic City. She goes blind, struggles with it for a bit, and then starts diving again. She also falls in love. The end.
Revisiting Wild Hearts, it became abundantly clear that there were three reasons this movie was made, and those reasons squarely line up with the things studios seem to think women—and especially young women—like: unoffensive and unconditional romance, horses, and overcoming adversity. Wild Hearts ticks all those boxes with syrupy aplomb, as Gabrielle Anwar’s Sonora flits from tragedy to tragedy with saccharine optimism and supreme confidence. At times it’s charming—like when she talks her way into Dr. W.F. Carver’s Buffalo Bill-loving employ—but other times, like when she heads right back in the swing of things mere hours after her sad diagnosis, it seems a little callous and unrealistic. Then again, this is a Disney movie about a girl who makes it big jumping horses off a tower while being secretly blind, so what should we expect?
The real issue with this movie all these years later—to me, at least—is the fairly icky relationship between Michael Schoeffling’s Al and Sonora. At the time of the movie’s filming, Anwar was 19 or 20. Schoeffling, who’d had his big break in Sixteen Candles, was a decade older. While that might not be a big deal in real life or even in most movies, in Wild Hearts it comes across as relatively off-putting to see this grown-ass adult. When I was 10 or 11 years old and perched in the back of a dark, hot classroom, this kind of love was charming. Sure, Al was a bit of a cad, but he was cute and Sonora seemed to like him, so more power to them, right? Twenty years later, the scenes between Al and Sonora read as borderline sleazy, with man-about-town Al taking advantage of a young, disenfranchised teen who never really knew any better. Watching the movie as an adult, I’m not really sure why Sonora fell in love with Al—or if she really did—but that could be realistic. It was the 1930s, after all, and love wasn’t always a requirement. He supported her, and so she married him. I just wish Anwar didn’t look like she was 13 the whole time all this was happening.
Speaking of Schoeffling, he’s a real dud in Wild Hearts. I’d always loved him in Sixteen Candles, mainly because I bought him as a hunky high schooler without much to say. In Wild Hearts, though, his flat affect is magnified to the nth degree. He’s supposed to get angry with his father but he only manages to seem slightly perturbed. As Sonora repeatedly falls down while trying to mount her horse, Lightning, he should be irritated. Instead, he’s mildly concerned, seemingly incapable of tapping into the acting skills that would let either his face or words convey any sort of emotion. It’s probably the most off-putting thing in the movie, even when set against that aforementioned gross relationship. It’s even more disturbing than Cliff Robertson’s onscreen fuzz mullet, and that’s saying something.
Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken isn’t bad, but it isn’t good either. If anything, it’s a time capsule, though not one that’s stuffed with artifacts from the period in which the movie is set. Rather, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken’s buried box is full of reminders of what it felt like to be a tween girl, all horsed up and ready to be wooed. Twenty-five years and a bout of puberty later, viewers will no doubt understand that the movie’s messages aren’t all that realistic but that they’re mildly comforting all the same.