'Ride Like a Girl': Film Review

Courtesy of Saban Films
A by-the-numbers inspirational sports tale.
3/13/2020

Actor Rachel Griffiths makes her directing debut with the true story of a female jockey in Australia.

In a family with 10 children, all raised around horse racing, isn't one almost mathematically guaranteed to grow up to be a champion? A sense of inevitability hovers over Ride Like a Girl, despite the film hinging on an underdog theme: It's about one of the family's daughters, after all, and girls don't win the Melbourne Cup. Making her debut as director with a true story from her native Australia, actor Rachel Griffiths gives the pic a workmanlike, generic feel that would play well on family-centric cable channels. Horse lovers will be the moviegoers most vulnerable to its modest charms.

Teresa Palmer's Michelle Payne is the youngest of 10 siblings being raised by the single-minded horse trainer Paddy Payne (Sam Neill, well suited to the no-nonsense part). Her mother died when she was six months old, and Paddy used racing as the family's organizing principle: A giant chalkboard hangs in their house, tracking the status of various horses, and Dad keeps one earphone in during family meals, listening to the results of races he can't attend.

Though seven of her siblings have been jockeys before her, Paddy is protective of Michelle, keeping his "Little Girl" in a long apprenticeship she feels will never end. When her first series of minor races all lead to disappointment, Paddy suggests it might be time to send the child back to school: Immediately, the film's soundtrack offers an anthemic song called "Fight Like a Girl," and Michelle wins a race; but she's barely off the track before she learns an older sister has been thrown from her own horse and killed, leading Paddy to grow far more protective of his youngest child.

This pattern of obstacle and achievement grows monotonous before long, after Michelle ignores her father's concerns and ventures off to start her own career as a jockey. (The two remain estranged for much of the film, though Dad's grudge is obviously just waiting for the right moment to melt away.) Out in the world, she endures a token incident of sexual harassment before getting her big shot at riding a serious horse. She has to lose 3 kilograms (a little more than six and a half pounds) to meet the race's weight qualification, though, and the film's oddest moment is the nearly sensualized sequence observing her sweat-it-off strategies.

Meanwhile, Michelle's brother is starting his own unlikely career: Stevie, a young man with Down syndrome, meets a horse owner who appreciates his ability to soothe skittish animals. He and Michelle start to dream about a future in which they can run their own horse farm. (Stevie Payne plays himself here, and the casting feels natural.)

Michelle's career is a series of injuries and returns to the track, interrupted by doctors saying easily ignored things like, "But another injury to the head could be fatal." Who cares about dying when you finally find the horse you can bond with? Horse lovers' hearts will warm a bit when she encounters a gelding as banged-up as she is: Prince of Penzance. When the two finally make it to the famed Melbourne Cup race, bookies put Michelle's odds at "impossible to one." Moviegoers will know better.

Production company: Magdalene Media
Distributor: Saban Films
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Sam Neill, Sullivan Stapleton, Stevie Payne, Genevieve Morris, Magda Szubanski
Director: Rachel Griffiths
Screenwriters: Andrew Knight, Elise McCredie
Producers: Rachel Griffiths, Susie Montague, Richard Keddie
Director of photography: Martin McGrath
Production designer: Carrie Kennedy
Costume designer: Cappi Ireland
Editors: Maria Papoutsis, Jill Bilcock
Composer: David Hirschfelder
Casting director: Nikki Barrett

Rated PG, 98 minutes