March 25, 1985 12:00 PM

Sylvester is about a Texas girl who dreams of becoming a star in equestrian competition; at one point someone says, “Watching dressage is like watching cement set.” This film has the same problem—it’s a horse story marred by leaden pacing and enough bathos to flood the Rio Grande. Melissa (Little House on the Prairie) Gilbert is an ornery, foul-mouthed 16-year-old orphan in filthy boots and a Stetson who breaks horses for a west Texas stockyard. She struggles to raise her two younger brothers in a rusty old trailer and fantasizes about training horses for the Olympics. When the stockyard receives an unbroken, bad-tempered, funny-looking gray gelding, Gilbert names him “Sylvester Stallone,” and decides to train him to compete. But there are complications. A pesky social worker keeps trying to take away Melissa’s brothers, Yankton (Places in the Heart) Hatten, 11, and Shane (Terms of Endearment) Serwin, 5. Gilbert’s gas-station-owner boyfriend, Michael (Vision Quest) Schoeffling, wants her to settle down. And the man who could help her train Sylvester, Richard (The Grey Fox) Farnsworth, won’t do it because he was in love with her late mother and never forgave her for marrying someone else. Director Tim (Tex) Hunter takes up far too much time recounting these tribulations. In the best Hollywood half-pint tradition, Gilbert, minus her Little House pigtails or petticoats, muddles through with her stock-in-trade flashy smile, petulant pout and trembling lower lip. She has more chemistry with Sylvester than she does with Schoeffling. He plods through the movie like Matt Dillon at his somnolent worst. Only the grizzled Farnsworth, with his quiet, wry charm, brings much to the film. When Hunter finally does let Sylvester become a girl-and-her-horse story, it’s too late. Gilbert’s sudden development into a national-class equestrienne is especially unconvincing. Sylvester’s transformation is more believable (several different horses double for him throughout the film). The scenes of him daintily dancing in a four-legged sidestep or fearlessly leaping a fence are full of physical drama. Sylvester needed more of such images and less unlikely talk. (PG)

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