A throwback to the live-action Disney family films of yesteryear, the made-in-Oklahoma coming-of-age rodeo drama “Cowgirls N' Angels” will sweetly but deftly lasso openhearted viewers.
Since hyperactive 3-D animated features, groan-inducing cartoon/live-action mashups and PG-13-rated comic-book or toy-based actioners are typically what pass for family movies these days, “Cowgirls N' Angels” offers a refreshingly old-fashioned alternative. While the story is a bit too pat and predictable, the winning cast and Western authenticity help elevate the movie, which was filmed in Stillwater, Guthrie, Oklahoma City and Pawnee.
The debut feature from director Timothy Armstrong, who co-wrote the script with “The Omega Code” scribe Stephan Blinn, “Cowgirls N' Angels” trails young Ida Clayton (Bailee Madison, “Just Go With It”), a sassy, small-town Oklahoma girl who longs to know her father, a rodeo rider she's never met. Her harried, hardworking single mother Elaine (Alicia Witt, TV's “Friday Night Lights”) — herself the daughter of a famous rodeo champ whose sudden death left her without a support system — refuses to even reveal the name of Ida's father and strictly forbids the girl from attending any rodeos that come to town.
But Ida is lonely and neglected, so while Elaine is at work, the intrepid youngster digs through her mother's keepsake collection until she finds a postcard with her father's name on it and ventures out to the local arena to scour the rodeo ranks for her daddy.
Instead, she meets grandfatherly rodeo legend Terence Parker (Oscar nominee James Cromwell, “Babe”), who leads a female trick rider team called the Sweethearts of the Rodeo. Terence and the troupe's tack master/cowboy preacher Augustus (Frankie Faison, TV's “The Wire”) quickly recognize that Ida has a natural affinity for horses, especially their escape-artist prize gelding, and a powerful desire to belong somewhere. Realizing he knew her grandfather, Terence offers to teach Ida to ride as long as she gets her mother's consent.
Knowing that Elaine will never agree, the girl forges a permission note and begins her training with the other Sweethearts, including her kindly mentor Kansas (Madison Burge), the sharp-tongued Madison (Leslie-Anne Huff) and Terence's no-nonsense daughter Rebecca (Kathleen Rose Perkins). When Elaine finds out about Ida's secret activities, she is furious. But circumstances leave the single mom in need of extra income from an out-of-town job, so she reluctantly agrees to let Ida go on tour with Terence and the Sweethearts.
As they travel from rodeo to rodeo, Ida and her fellow riders search for the girl's father, even as Terence and Augustus patiently teach the youngster challenging riding tricks along with respect for authority. Her newfound respect for the rules is challenged when Kansas falls for a courtly cowhand named Justin (Jackson Rathbone, “The Twilight Saga” movies), which violates Rebecca's no-cowboys policy.
Cristela Carrizales, Kent Jones and Aimee Crowther are among the Oklahoma actors who have small parts in the film, while state musicians Devin Derrick and Amber Hayes each have three songs on the soundtrack and make appearances in the movie. (Sharp-eyed country music fans will recognize former Lone Star lead singer Richie McDonald playing Hayes' father and duet partner during a fun honky-tonk scene.) Maggie McClure, singer/songwriter/pianist who hails from Norman, contributed the wonderful opening-credits theme “Good Morning and Good Night.”
With the consistently excellent Cromwell and precocious Madison leading the cast, “Cowgirls N' Angels” is worth watching even when it ventures into overly corny or cliched territory. But for fans of the Oklahoma film and music scene, our fair state is the real star of the show.