“The Greening of Whitney Brown” is a film that could have followed predictable pre-teen formulas already done by the Disney Channel. It instead veers slightly off-course, placing enough focus on the title character's family that viewers are left with another experience entirely.
Its heroine is Whitney Brown, a bratty middle school student played by Sammi Hanratty with bright-eyed naiveté. She's a spoiled Philadelphia native who can't cook her own toast, maxes out credit cards for cashmere dresses and has as much depth as a pool's shallow end.
Hanratty handles the role with such earnestness, however, that when Whitney receives her rude awakening, one can't help but pity her. Her wealthy parents Henry and Joan – played by Aidan Quinn and Brooke Shields, respectively – enter financial limbo when Henry loses his job. With their many belongings repossessed and their options few, the entire family relocates to a farm owned by Henry's father Dusty (Kris Kristofferson).
It's a move a world apart for Whitney, a city girl hooked to her bejeweled smart phone and planning school dances. Though she best expresses the family's newfound tension with temper tantrums, her parents face problems of their own. Henry has lingering daddy issues with Dusty, while Joan struggles to support her husband's happiness during his unemployment. With every Brown depressed and down, the stage is set for intervention.
Riding to the family's rescue is Odd Job Bob, Dusty's humorous horse. The strong-willed animal worms its way into Whitney's life, following her around like a puppy in horseshoes. Eventually overcome by its devotion, Whitney starts riding and begrudgingly accepts the country life. More importantly, she helps heal her broken family.
"It's a blessing in disguise for all of us," Joan tells her daughter following their relocation. "They say home is where the heart is, but my heart is wherever you are."
The change spreads like wildfire, and soon enough Dusty is training Whitney and reconnecting with his son. As months pass and Whitney's city days disappear, she realizes her new existence recalls a simpler time, a better time.
"Something amazing started happening," Whitney confesses. "I figured it out. Your friends are your family. How cool is that?"
Using her newfound humility, Whitney returns to her old life and finds out it wasn't what she remembered. That realization's fallout drives the movie's finale – a feel-good climax that should leave viewers grinning when the film opens Friday nationwide.
“The Greening of Whitney Brown” puts the "heart" in "light-hearted." Though it sports plenty of silliness, it also teaches us that family members sustain each other through tough times. When it comes to life lessons, it's one that doesn't horse around.