Rachel Griffiths’ feature directorial debut is directly aimed at the younger female market, and, as an aspirational and inspirational true story with heart, good intentions, an excellent central performance and absolutely killer source material, Ride Like a Girl is a winner. Like the girl power pop anthems that litter the soundtrack, this is a pop confection that knows its audience. Far be it for me to churlishly point out too many deficiencies – some slack editing, some iffy dialogue and some far too glorious (CGI-infected) sunsets; this is a rousing crowd-pleaser that earns its box office success.
Teresa Palmer is engaging, credible and ultimately the film’s trump card as Michelle Payne, the youngest of ten children brought up in a horse training and racing family in Victoria, who dreams of riding in the Melbourne Cup. Her journey as told here, with significant dramatic ellipsis (there’s one particular time jump that conveniently skips arguably a movie’s worth of drama) is not so much one of fighting against racing’s patrimony as of jockeying for position (ho ho ho) within her family for her father’s blessing to ride. Her dad is played by Sam Neill, one of the screen’s consummate professionals and a master of exuding empathy, so there’s nothing to worry about there. This is a girl and horse and father and family story first; it is inherently feminist but never makes gender its central concern. Thankfully, there’s no romantic subplot; outside of her dad, Michelle’s central relationship is with her brother Stevie, winningly played by the actual Stevie Payne. Palmer and Payne’s chemistry is sublime, and the quiet scenes between them are the film’s best.
What will be concerning to some parents is the film’s long second act dealing with Michelle’s attempts to rapidly and recklessly bring her weight down to 50 kg to ride a particular race. We see Palmer starving herself, push herself physically, and even wrap herself in plastic and go driving in a car with the heat turned up through the night. This is not presented as dangerous but simply as par for the course and when she weighs in at 50kg, a triumph. It’s astonishing that the film goes there with this clearly unhealthy behaviour; TabCorp – the horse racing gambling establishment – and the Victorian Racing Authority were major supporters of the film, so make of that what you will. Needless to say, you don’t see any horses being mistreated, let alone fatally shot on the track; if, inherently, you cannot stomach the horse racing industry, clearly you are not going to want to see this film, which passionately adores the practice. I have put aside my own disagreements with the industry for the sake of this review.