Samantha Rayburn, 11 years old, sassy, street-smart, a born clown, abandoned to the Welfare System of New York by a mother she thinks will return and a father she never met, is scraped off the city streets and bussed out west to live with a grandfather she never knew she had. Her grandfather, Will Rayburn, in his early 60’s, creaks through life on auto-pilot, scratching out a living on his low-yielding farm, inviting neither conversation nor company. We can see there’s damage there…a tragedy he must have come to grips with long ago, and since has never looked back. The other principal character in the film is an elephant that is surreptitiously left at Will’s farm by a troupe of circus performers who, in trying to sell off the remnants of the defunct circus Will once owned, can’t find a buyer for this lonely, damaged, and morose creature.
This ragged collection of colorful characters explode into the bleak farmhouse, transforming it into a blaze of activity. Doing shtick, juggling anything they can lift, singing, and joking, they bring a “magic” into Sam’s life she never knew existed. Her discovery of the elephant starts the alchemy in her life. At first weary of the huge creature, Sam, with love, care, and patience, sees that the elephant is innately intelligent, curious, oddly playful, and wants to learn.
The elephant becomes the main focus in an ongoing battle between Sam and Will. Sam’s vivacity, sense of fun, and undaunted love of life is anathema to Will, whose idea of human and animal dignity seems like death to Sam. Sam’s friends in the ramshackle village include Billy, age 6, who adores Sam and whom Sam treats in the same manner as Will treats her, and Jim, 50ish, who owns a gas station where Sam works part-time. Jim has a passion for antique toys and classical music. He becomes Sam’s confidant.
Sam’s ultimate challenge is to teach the elephant something she herself loves—to roller-skate. This is, in Will’s book, an unforgivable act of degradation towards a noble animal. Sam believes it’s a way of helping a dying creature come back to life. These two stubbornly opposed characters are equally matched and at a stalemate until, after weeks of secret nocturnal lessons, Sam, with the help of her friends, sets the stage for the show.
An abandoned supermarket at the edge of town. Nothing in it save a few vertical beams illuminated by pick-up truck headlights surrounding it. Dirt poor farmers and their families watch dazzled and bewitched, as Sam and her massive friend step into the criss-cross of lights and begin to skate to the weirdly apt strains of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier waltz. It’s haunting, beautiful, and joyous.
Our initial impression is that Will is appalled at Sam’s blatant public defiance. But we ultimately discover that Will has made the first gesture toward rapprochement when Sam finds that Will has mended one of the elephant’s skates which broke during the extraordinary performance the night before.
This story, with its roots less in “Pollyanna” than in”La Strada,” is a tightrope act—balancing a lean, gritty, and feisty toughness against a warm and humorous explosion of life.
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