Review: ‘Ride Like a Girl,’ starring Teresa Palmer, Sam Neill and Stevie Payne

March 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Teresa Palmer in “Ride Like a Girl” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Ride Like a Girl”

Directed by Rachel Griffiths

Culture Representation: Taking place in Australia and inspired by a true story, “Ride Like a Girl” has an all-white cast of characters from the middle-class and upper-class who are involved in the sport of horse racing.

Culture Clash: Horse-racing jockey Michelle Payne fights sexism, and she clashes with her father over how long she’ll stay in this dangerous sport.

Culture Audience: “Ride Like a Girl” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in formulaic movies about horse racing or women overcoming obstacles in a male-dominated industry.

Teresa Palmer and Sam Neill in “Ride Like a Girl” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

There’s a certain formula that movies follow about women overcoming obstacles in a male-dominated world. The sports drama “Ride Like a Girl” (which is inspired by a true story) follows the formula almost to a fault. Feisty heroine? Check. Sexist villains? Check. An against-all-odds victory? Check.

Under the capable-but-unoriginal direction of Rachel Griffiths (who’s best known as a former co-star of the HBO TV series “Six Feet Under”), “Ride Like a Girl” tells the real-life story of horse-racing jockey Michelle Payne, played by Teresa Palmer in the movie. In 2015, at the age of 30, Payne became the first female jockey to win at the annual Melbourne Cup, Australia’s most prestigious thoroughbred horse race, which has been around since 1861.

Even if you’ve never heard of Michelle Payne and what she accomplished, it’s clear from the first 10 minutes of this movie how the story is going to be presented and how it’s going to end. It has the same sort of tone and pacing like many other “underdog” sports movies that have come before it. That’s not to say that “Ride Like a Girl” is boring or poorly executed. It’s just completely predictable.

The movie begins with a documentary-type voiceover (that doesn’t appear for the rest of the film) telling viewers that Michelle was born into a large family (she’s the youngest of 10 kids), and her mother died in a car accident when Michelle was only 10 months old. Her father, Paddy Payne (played by Sam Neill), is completely immersed in the world of horse racing, since he’s been both a jockey and a trainer. Some of his children have also become jockeys.

As a child, Michelle became an avid follower of horse races. Since it’s her family business, it’s no surprise that when she’s old enough, she wants to become a jockey too, just like some of her older siblings. The movie shows that as a teenager in high school, Michelle was so obsessed with horse racing, that she would excuse herself from class so that she could sit in a bathroom stall and listen to horse races on a portable device. (She gets caught in the act by an inquisitive nun at the Catholic school that Michelle attends.)

Because Michelle has such a large family, director Griffiths and “Ride Like a Girl” screenwriters Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie wisely didn’t try to give all of them a back story. Instead, the two siblings of Michelle who get the most screen time are Stevie Payne (who plays himself), who happens to have Down’s syndrome, and Cathy Payne (played by Sophia Forrest), who is close to Michelle’s age and is also a jockey. Michelle has the closest bond with Stevie, who’s her most loyal supporter. She promises Stevie that one day they’ll have their own facility to train race horses.

Paddy trains Michelle as a jockey, and she has natural and gifted abilities in the sport. She’s also usually the only female jockey in a race. Because of the overwhelming sexism in the industry, the rare female jockeys who exist are regulated to races in the minor leagues. Michelle has bigger ambitions than that. She wants to race in the Melbourne Cup and win.

But tragedy strikes the family when Michelle’s older sister Brigid (played by Anneliese Apps), who was the second woman to become a professional jockey in Australia, dies from an accidental fall from a horse. It’s the most common way that jockeys die on the job, and the tragedy has long-lasting effects on the Payne family. Paddy immediately discourages Michelle from continuing her dreams of being a jockey, but she defies his wishes and continues without his help or support.

The rest of the movie shows Michelle overcoming a number of obstacles—such as sexist men who don’t want her competing in races, numerous falls from horses, and several broken-bone injuries—that should come as no surprise to viewers. There isn’t one particular person who’s made out to be the chief villain in this story. Rather, the movie portrays several of the horse owners, fellow jockeys and others in horse racing as being part of an overall culture of sexism. Michelle is frequently excluded and treated like a second-class person, compared to the male jockeys who get privileges that she doesn’t.

Not all of the men in horse racing are portrayed as sexist. There’s a horse-racing associate named Darren Weir (played by Sullivan Stapleton), who works with many of the horse owners and who’s quietly supportive of Michelle. While hanging out at the race tracks, Darren seems to show up at the right time to give words of encouragement and advice to Michelle. The way that Darren smirks at Michelle somewhat hints that he might want to date her, but the movie doesn’t veer off in the direction of having a contrived romance.

In fact, Michelle doesn’t have any love life in this movie. For the purposes of this story, it’s entirely believable that she doesn’t show any interest in dating anyone because she’s so focused/obsessed with the sport of horse racing and being the best in her field. It also makes sense that she wouldn’t get romantically involved with anyone in her line of work because it would undermine her efforts to be taken seriously. There’s a telling scene where she’s in a gym hot tub with fellow jockeys, in what appears to be a gathering after a horse race. This scene demonstrates that she’s trying to be “one of the boys,” but her discomfort is clearly shown in her face and other body language, as she stays in a corner of the hot tub and turns away so they won’t stare at her swimsuit-clad body.

The movie also shows some of the other ways that being a woman in a male-dominated sport had an effect on Michelle’s personal life. In one scene, she gets an opportunity to compete in an important race that takes place on the same day as her sister Cathy’s wedding. Cathy has given up being a jockey to get married and start a family, and she encourages Michelle to start thinking about doing the same thing. (Michelle’s not interested.)

In order to compete in this race, the horse owner tells Michelle that she has to weigh 50 kilograms. The race is the next day, and Michelle weighs 53 kilograms. She promises the horse owner that she can lose three kilograms in one day. The movie shows how she goes through extremes to lose the weight (fasting; rigorous exercising wearing heavy clothes so she can sweat off the kilograms; wrapping her body in cellophane), in addition to her race-against-time to make it to the wedding.

Whether or not this happened in real life, it’s used to dramatic effect. What the movie doesn’t really address (and possibly glosses over) is how much pressure the real Michelle Payne and other female jockeys might feel to be a certain weight and if it puts them in danger of getting eating disorders.

A big part of the movie is about how Michelle’s choice to continue as a jockey led her to being estranged from her father, who annoyingly calls her “little girl,” even after Michelle has become a teenager and adult. Viewers can see that Paddy has stopped supporting Michelle’s jockey dreams because he’s afraid of another one of his children dying from horse racing. But it’s also implied in the movie that Paddy wouldn’t have been so adamant about Michelle quitting horse racing if she were one of his sons.

Michelle runs into some other obstacles, such as when she’s suspended for 20 race meets after a judge has blamed her for causing another jockey to fall from his horse during a race. She vehemently protests the decision and claims that she did nothing wrong. Meanwhile, Michelle has bonded with a thoroughbred called Prince of Penzance, who is her favorite horse by far. But the horse’s owner has doubts that Michelle, after coming back from another serious injury, has what it takes to race the horse in the Melbourne Cup.

As Michelle Payne, Palmer does a credible job with her performance, which solidly carries the whole movie. Her scenes with Neill (who’s also very good as Michelle’s father Paddy) have the most emotional resonance. Not many people can relate to being a jockey, but a lot of people can relate to the family dynamics in the movie. “Ride Like a Girl” is absolutely an inspiring film, but compared to 1944’s “National Velvet,” it just won’t be considered a classic.

Saban Films released “Ride Like a Girl” in select New York City and Los Angeles theaters, as well as on digital and VOD, on March 13, 2020. The movie was already released in Australia in 2019.