Pit Pony (Eric Till, 1997)
I’ve been trying to figure out how to review Pit Pony, an unassuming little made-for-TV movie that was popular enough to spawn a short-lived TV series. These days, when it is remembered at all (and there is precious little of that), it’s because the movie was the first screen appearance of a spunky young actress then credited as Ellen Philpotts-Page. (She has since dropped the “Philpotts” and gone on to international superstardom.) But even given that, the movie seems to have faded into a kind of obscurity reserved for YA-themed historical-fiction made-for-TV movies. This is criminal, as Pit Pony is a simple tale, brilliantly told, with a top-notch cast and director.
The plot revolves around daily life on a hardscrabble island off the coast of Nova Scotia called Glace Bay at the turn of the century. Specifically, while the main plot points involve young Willie MacLean (Ben Rose-Davis, who never acted again) and the titular pony, who develop a strong bond over the course of the picture, the slice-of-life film is impossible to keep with one person, and so we get to know the facts and foibles of the entire MacLean family—Rory (Haven‘s Richard Donat) and Nellie (Lives of the Saints‘ Jennie Richmond), dad and mum; irrepressible, happy-go-lucky oldest son John (Hope Springs‘ Andrew Keilty in his first screen appearance); and sisters Maggie (Page) and Sara (Three Days‘ Anna Wedolock). The MacLean family have been miners for as long as MacLeans have lived on Glace Bay; that is their lot in life, or so they have always believed. But a visionary elementary school teacher goes to work on convincing Willie, who at ten is already working the mines as a trapper (one who transports mined coal to the surface; trappers were often children, and thus capable of getting through smaller tunnels adult miners were incapable of traversing), that he’s got the brains to be able to leave the dangerous mining life behind and do something with his life that will likely increase his maximum age. But Willie’s almost preternatural bond with Gem, one of the mine’s “pit ponies”, keeps him underground while he still pursues his education. Of course, mining being the profession it is, it is only a matter of time until the MacLean family is hit with a personal tragedy or two that makes Willie re-evaluate his position…
Despite this being a slice-of-life movie, Till (perhaps best remembered on the YA front for directing the classic Fraggle Rock) never lets the subplots overwhelm the main story. “Keep it simple” seems to have been the overarching theme on the set here, and it worked; the action is straightforward, the emotion grows naturally from it, and because of that this is as genuine a movie as you’re likely to run across. I cannot recommend this highly enough; if you missed it the first time around, see it at your earliest convenience. ****
Needless to say, every clip of this movie you can find online is all OMGELLENPAGE!!!11!