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Not since a teenage Elizabeth Taylor rode her steed to victory in National Velvet has a film about a kid and a horse proven such an effective tearjerker as Christian Duguay’s French drama about a young girl who doesn’t let a terrible accident prevent her from pursuing her dream of becoming a jockey. The film may feel predictable at times in its plot machinations, but it nonetheless exerts a solid emotional pull that should make it a crowd-pleaser upon its theatrical release next month in its native country. Ride Above recently received its U.S. premiere as the centerpiece film of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.
The story begins in 2001, when Zoe is born in a racehorse stable owned by her parents at the same time as a horse named Beautiful Intrigue. Zoe and Beautiful Intrigue grow up together, with the teenage girl’s (Carmen Kassovitz, daughter of French actor/director Mathieu Kassovitz) innate love of horses encouraged by her supportive parents (Mélanie Laurent, Pio Marmai). When Beautiful Intrigue later gives birth to a foal, Zoe names him Tempete and begins to groom him for racing, convinced that he’s a future champion.
Tragedy strikes when Zoe is accidentally run over by Beautiful Intrigue when the horse gets spooked by a torrential thunderstorm. Confined to a wheelchair as a result, Zoe becomes bitterly depressed, moving into a shack especially rigged to compensate for her handicap. The stables’ autistic employee Seb (Kacey Mottet Klein, admirably subtle), who has a special way with horses, attempts to draw her out of her shell, as does a physical therapist (Hugo Becker) newly hired by her parents to work with her. But Zoe mostly proves resistant to their entreaties until she discovers that she can strengthen her muscles by swimming, which encourages her to once again attempt to get back in the saddle.
Under Seb’s guidance, Zoe practices riding Tempete late at night, initially without her parents knowing. They eventually get wise and, despite severe misgivings, agree to let her secretly substitute for the scheduled jockey of a horse owned by a wealthy couple (Danny Huston, speaking French impressively in a nifty bilingual performance, and French screen veteran Carole Bouquet) in an upcoming big-stakes race. Set during a blinding snowstorm, the climactic sequence delivers the requisite suspense and emotion in high-level doses.
Director Duguay (The Art of War, The Assignment), working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Lilou Foglie and Christophe Donner (author of the novel on which the film is based), manages to expertly pull heartstrings without lapsing into excessive sentimentality. The equestrian sequences are beautifully staged and edited, and while the film thankfully avoids anthropomorphizing in its depiction of the relationship between Zoe and her horse, parents should be advised to have answers ready when their young children request their own ponies after seeing the film.
Ride Above never feels overly manipulative or hokey, thanks to its complex characterizations, sophisticated dialogue and superb performances by its ensemble. Kassovitz delivers a heartbreaking turn in the central role without resorting to maudlin attempts to gain our sympathy, while Laurent provides a vivid portrait of maternal fierceness as the mother who refuses to let her daughter quit. Marmai is equally good as the loving father, while Mottet-Klein and Becker make vivid impressions in their supporting roles.
Production companies: Nolita Cinema, Pathe, TF1 Studio, France 2 Cinema, Pictanovo
Cast: Melanie Laurent, Pio Marmai, Carmen Kassovitz, Kacey Mottet-Klein, Carole Bouquet, Danny Huston
Director: Christian Duguay
Screenwriters: Christian Duguay, Christophe Donner, Lilou Fogli
Producers: Maxime Delauney, Romain Rousseau
Director of photography: Christophe Graillot
Production designer: Frederique Doublet, Frederi Grandclere
Editors: Maxime Lahaie, Sylvain Lebel
Costume designer: Alice Cambournac
1 hour 58 minutes
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