Some movies can get by on heart alone. The pieces may not all tie together perfectly, and there may be a few moments where they lose their way, but films with a big heart and a loveable story will always be worth watching. Rachel Griffiths’ feature directorial debut Ride Like a Girl, is a film with a silly title, and a few head-scratching issues, but an undeniably massive heart.
We follow the story of Michelle Payne (Teresa Palmer) from her youth, all the way to becoming the first woman ever to win the Melbourne Cup. We first meet her as a young girl getting up to mischief with her instantly loveable brother Stevie (played by himself), as well as trying to survive her other 8 siblings. She comes a long way from these humble beginnings and fights for everything she achieves.
Hampered primarily by the misogynistic stance that female jockeys aren’t as good as male ones. She overcomes this and so much more along the way, and eventually finds herself racing ‘The Race that Stops the Nation’, with every scar, emotional and physical, pushing her around the track to glory.
There’s a lot to love about this film, but there are some glaring and questionable issues as well. For starters, the script has a knack of glossing over the hardships Michelle and her family face, particularly when she is just starting out. She loses a sister, was raised only by her father, as her mother passed while she was very young, and later finds herself facing multiple career-threatening injuries.
All of which is in the film, but none of it is granted enough time or depth to make clear how painful these periods had to of been for her. One moment she’s grieving her sister, the next she’s achieving another triumph, it’s a slightly fantastical depiction of a life that can’t have been as easy as it all comes across in the film. Overall the movie becomes uneven; As if Griffiths couldn’t decide if she wanted to make something about all of Michelle’s blood sweat and tears, or if she only wanted to display her victory.
The other big issue I take with the Ride Like a Girl is the music. Ride Like a Girl boasts a beautiful score by David Hirschfelder, swelling with notes that wholly encompass the dream we get to witness come true. And yet licenced music still pops its head in where it doesn’t belong. Every time a piece of popular music leaks through the speakers, it’s tacky and jarring. Why, when you have such a terrific composer creating such wonderful music, would you ever bother paying money to licence music? Plain and simple this was the wrong decision, and I have no idea how it came to be.
Now onto what I liked, and I liked more than I disliked. Right from the start, all 11 members of the Payne family are loveable. They have a wonderfully Australian dynamic that may involve our unique style of badgering but also the unshakable bonds we hide beneath that humour. You want them to achieve their dreams, and you feel for them when things aren’t so bright, and by the end, they become why this film has as much heart as it does. Calling Ride Like a Girl overly sentimental would be easy, but I feel it rises above that. You really get a sense this movie is telling an inspiring story when the best moments arrive. And those moments are deeply loveable and come directly from the brilliant cast.
I loved the performances in this film a lot. I can’t say they’re anything groundbreaking or awe-inspiring. But I can say that of all the movies involving Screen Australia or one of their state offshoots this year Ride Like a Girl is one of the best, and that’s thanks to the spectacular work of Teresa Palmer and Sam Neill. Neill plays Paddy Payne, Michelle’s father, and does so with evident and dedicated respect for the role.
He finds himself in some of the pictures best scenes as he connects with and passes on wisdom to, his daughter, and Neill nails it at every turn. Palmer is just as good as her veteran counterpart; she shows her superstar potential here more than in anything else I’ve seen her in. She makes it hard to imagine anyone else paying Michelle; she’s that good. The unevenly happy/ sad edit does her no favours, and yet she still makes the impact felt when she needs to. The experience as a whole may not get across Payne’s hardship on the way to glory, but in the most important moments, Palmer sure does.
Ride Like a Girl has a huge heart, and that’s enough to carry it over the finish line. Yes, the execution could have been smoother, and the pacing is all wrong, but when it comes right down to it, the story of Michelle Payne is too incredible not to fall in love with, and her winning moment truly is irresistible cinema.
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