When it comes to Melbourne Cup movies, it’s a pretty small field.
There’s the winner — Simon Wincer’s much-loved 1983 Phar Lap — and the loser, Wincer’s cumbersome 2011 failure The Cup. For the filmmakers of Ride Like A Girl, these are the ones to beat.
This celebration of history-making jockey Michelle Payne can’t surpass Phar Lap, but thanks to a strong finish, it at least leaves The Cup for dead.
Ride Like a Girl’s real strength is it never lets anything get in the way of telling the superb true story at its heart (something The Cup couldn’t manage).
It follows Payne (played with grit by Teresa Palmer) from her rambunctious childhood with her nine siblings and widower dad (Sam Neill) through her hard-fought attempts to gain a foothold as a jockey in a male-dominated sport.
Bookended by file footage of the real-life Payne, Ride Like a Girl tackles the dangers of her profession and the sexist attitudes she had to overcome to follow her childhood dream and etch her name in the history books of “the race that stops a nation”.
It’s this struggle, and the way it builds to an emotional ending that makes the film worthwhile.
Actor-turned-first-time director Rachel Griffiths said she set out “to make a PG feminist sports film that would make men cry” and by focusing purely on Payne, she achieves that.
It’s unfussy story-telling, which is why it works. Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie’s script keeps the story’s lens almost entirely on Payne, and Griffiths’s competent, straightforward direction helps build the film to its climax.
But if anything, Ride Like a Girl is too straightforward. There’s certainly nothing that elevates it from the middle of the field to the head of the pack.
Its weakest points are when it relies on cliches, such as when large sections of the story fly past as montages, or when Payne’s father Paddy is relegated to spouting hackneyed aphorisms for long stretches.
Palmer is good without being incredible, and ditto for Neill, although it’s the way the script deals with their relationship that really stands out, elevating their performances somewhat.
Bizarrely, the best performance is Sullivan Stapleton as Darren Weir. While the real-life Weir’s career has been destroyed by a recent scandal, the version of him in Ride Like a Girl shines as a knockabout, no-nonsense bloke willing to stick his neck out for Payne, but only because he believes she has what it takes.
He’s a pragmatic and very Aussie bloke, brought to life with a casual realism by Stapleton.
Similarly, Stevie Payne does an excellent and realistic job playing himself (naturally), even getting some of the best jokes.
While it tells a classic underdog tale, Ride Like a Girl is not an instant classic.
Its message is important and its story powerful, but it’s told in a matter-of-fact and unsurprising way that works without ever excelling.
Ride Like a Girl is in cinemas from September 26.
Topics: biography-film, film-movies, arts-and-entertainment, critique-and-theory, horse-racing, sport, sport—leisure, women, gender-roles, warrnambool-3280, ballarat-3350, melbourne-3000, flemington-3031, caulfield-3162