Ride Like A Girl

Jacob Richardson | 15/09/2019

A serviceable Aussie tale that overcomes its shortcomings with sheer heart.


Michelle Payne (Teresa Palmer) is the youngest of the Payne clan; a big Aussie family full of jockeys, all coached by their horse race loving father Paddy Payne (Sam Neill). When one of the family dies after a fall, Paddy refuses to continue Michelle’s apprenticeship in jockeying, and Michelle makes her way to the big city of Melbourne by herself to try and make it on her own. After suffering a fall of her own, she gets back to it and goes on to be the first woman jockey to win the Melbourne Cup.


Directed by Rachel Griffiths, Ride Like A Girl feels at times like a big budget movie, and at other more frequent times like a low budget episodic TV melodrama. Primarily this disparity comes down to the quality of the script and direction versus the quality of the acting. 


The script to this Australian folk legend is fundamentally poor at key points, particularly when it comes to dialogue. Some of the best actors in the world grace the screen in this true life tale, and even they struggle to get through some of the cliched, unrealistic dialogue. That is coupled with some strange directorial choices, likely made in the edit room to cut the film down to length, such as when Michelle Payne seemingly struggles to get out of last place in her early races, takes a shower, then wins the next race - for no discernible reason. This is characteristic of a number of moments when the linkages (one would expect a training montage or similar) just aren’t there, creating a jarring effect and disabusing us of a true understanding of Michelle.


That being said, Griffiths does do a tremendous job of showcasing the sheer rumbling power of these animals as they race around the track. Utilising some innovative camera angles and techniques, she makes the race feel visceral and real. That extends to Michelle’s fall, which has all the horror, weight and gravitas it needs (and thankfully no injured horse). 


The other saving grace in this piece is the acting. Sam Neil and Teresa Palmer are both incredible actors, and elevate a script that frankly doesn’t deserve them. One of the real Payne clan also plays himself in the film, and does a great job.


In the end, this feels to staid and expected to be a must see. In particular, in a world increasingly aware of the horrors perpetrated against horses in the horse racing world, and more frequently at odds with events like the Melbourne Cup, it is a shame this didn’t take a more political stance. One can understand why - after all, for the main character, this is her industry - but it is a dying industry and no condemnation of the cruelty of this sport is really felt. This pulls all the emotional heartstrings of a female empowerment, underdog hero, sporting great story, but with none of the political or deep thought layers a more discerning viewer will want.


A perfectly serviceable film that doesn’t challenge itself, and won’t challenge its audience.