Review: ‘Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway,’ starring Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, David Oyelowo and the voices of James Corden, Colin Moody, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Aimee Horne and Lennie James

June 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

David Oyelowo, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson with Cotton-Tail (voiced by Aimee Horne), Flopsy (voiced by Margot Robbie), Mopsy (voiced by Elizabeth Debecki), Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) and Benjamin Bunny (voiced by Colin Moody) in “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

“Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway”

Directed by Will Gluck

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of England, “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” features a cast of characters representing humans (mostly white, with a few black and Asian people) and animals in working-class and middle-class environments.

Culture Clash: While on a family trip to London, Peter Rabbit separates himself from the rest of the group and falls in with a gang of thieving animals.

Culture Audience: “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” will appeal primarily to people looking for lightweight, family-friendly animated entertainment.

Barnabas (voiced by Lennie James), Samuel Whiskers (voiced by Rupert Degas), Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden), Mittens (voiced by Hayley Atwell) and Tom Kitten (voiced by Damon Herriman) in “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Just like the hyper rabbit who’s the title character, “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” hops all over the place, as Peter Rabbit becomes more restless about seeing the world outside of his home. This wandering spirit mostly works well in this affable sequel. And fortunately, people don’t have to see 2018’s “Peter Rabbit” movie to understand or enjoy this follow-up movie. The movies are based on the beloved Beatrix Potter children’s book series.

“Peter Rabbit” director/co-writer/producer Will Gluck returned to direct, co-write and produce “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway,” but he changed screenwriting collaborators. The “Peter Rabbit” screenplay was co-written by Rob Lieber, while Patrick Burleigh co-wrote the screenplay for “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway.” The results are a much more frenetically paced, travel-oriented film that stuffs in a “race against time” plot development the last 10 minutes of the movie.

This “race against time” plot development could have worked as the plot of an entire film instead of being rushed in at the end. It seems like the filmmakers tried to incorporate several different plot ideas into the same movie instead of sticking to just one. For the most part, it works, especially if viewers have short attention spans. But other times, “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” seems as if there are three different movies in one film.

One part of the movie is about the mischievous Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) running away from his family and befriending a gang of thieving animals. Another part of the movie is about Peter going home, missing his new friends, and recruiting his rabbit relatives and some animal pals to go back and help the gang of thieves with a big heist. And another part of the film involves a big rescue mission that won’t be revealed in this review. And there’s an over-arching theme about not changing your identity to please other people.

Because of all these different story ideas going on in the same movie, “Peter Rabbit 2” increases the energy level from the first “Peter Rabbit” movie, but sometimes to the detriment of staying focused. It’s not a perfect film. However, it’s good enough to bring some lighthearted chuckles while watching the antics of these precocious talking animals and how they interact with each other and with humans.

There are also some sly meta-references that poke fun at certain members of the cast and the “adventure story” aspect of this sequel. Some adult viewers might get the jokes. For example, Corden is somewhat of a divisive personality in real life. Some people adore him, while others think he’s extremely annoying. In “Peter Rabbit 2,” Peter asks certain animals more than once if they think his voice is annoying. It’s a question that Corden could be asking about his likability in real life.

And in other parts of the movie, there are several mentions of trying to make the “Peter Rabbit” books series more appealing to a wider audience by having the rabbits dress differently and having them embark on different adventures in various locations—even outer space. It seem like a wink and a nod to the pressures the “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” filmmakers must have felt to make this sequel more exciting than its predecessor. As such, Peter and his animal group experience more adventures outside the comfort of their country home in Windermere, England.

In the first “Peter Rabbit” movie, the plot centered mainly on Peter’s battles with members of the McGregor family who hate rabbits and other animals that might disrupt their garden where Peter and other animals like to play. First, there was crabby Old Mr. McGregor (played by Sam Neill), who died of a heart attack near the beginning of the movie. His nephew Thomas McGregor (played by Domhnall Gleeson), another cranky loner, inherited his deceased uncle’s house that’s next door to the house of an illustrative artist named Bea (played by Rose Byrne), a pleasant and gentle nurturer who loves the animals on the property.

Bea is especially fond of a family of five orphaned rabbits that she treats as if they’re her own children. The rabbits are Peter; his three sisters—insecure Flopsy Rabbit (voiced by Margot Robbie); practical Mopsy Rabbit (voiced by Elizabeth Debicki); and cynical Cotton-Tail Rabbit (voiced by Aimee Horne, who replaced Daisy Ridley)—and their older cousin Benjamin Bunny (voiced by Colin Moody), who likes to give wise advice. The rabbits think and talk like humans. But ironically, Thomas, not Bea, can hear the rabbits talk. (Flopsy is the voiceover narrator for these movies.)

The first “Peter Rabbit” movie ends the way that you expect it would. By the end of the movie, Thomas and Bea have fallen in love, Thomas has quit his sales job at Harrod’s, and he has fulfilled his dream of opening up a children’s shop that sells toys and books. Thomas has reached a tentative truce with Peter, with the agreement that Peter won’t touch Thomas’ cherished crop of tomatoes. This is information that’s mentioned at the beginning of “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway.” Therefore, people who didn’t see the first “Peter Rabbit” movie and want to get the full backstory probably should see “Peter Rabbit” before watching “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway.”

“Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” begins with Bea and Thomas getting married. They work together in the shop, and Thomas has been an independent publisher for Bea’s first “Peter Rabbit” book about Peter Rabbit and his family. The book, which is a hit, has caught the attention of a smooth-talking wheeler dealer named Nigel Basil-Jones (played by David Oyelowo), an executive at a major book publisher. Nigel comes into the shop one day and tells a delighted Bea that he wants to sign her to a multi-book deal that will significantly increase distribution and profits for her “Peter Rabbit” book series.

There’s just one problem: Nigel and his team of sycophantic executives think that the “Peter Rabbit” book series should be more appealing to modern audiences. Suggestions are made to change the rabbits’ wardrobe to T-shirts and jeans. And the executives want the rabbits to have adventures in other places besides the yard of their home.

Bea is excited about this possible contract and seems willing to make these changes, while Thomas and Cotton-Tail are more skeptical. Bea doesn’t want the changes to be too drastic, but she’s willing to compromise. Nigel can also be very persuasive. There’s a running joke in the movie that people can’t look into Nigel’s eyes for too long because his eyes have almost a hypnotic effect on people.

The first time that Bea and Thomas meet with Nigel in London, the spouses take their rabbit family with them by train. During Thomas and Bea’s meeting with Nigel (with the rabbits also in attendance), Nigel suggests that each of the rabbits should have nicknames that would make the rabbits’ personalities more marketable. For Benjamin, the suggested nickname is The Wise One. Cotton-Tail’s suggested nickname is The Firecracker. Identical twins Flopsy and Mopsy’s suggested nickname is The Dynamic Duo.

And for Peter, Nigel can’t decide between the nickname The Mischief Maker or The Bad Seed. Peter is insulted by both names, especially The Bad Seed, because he doesn’t think he’s bad. And he doesn’t want to be portrayed as a villain in Bea’s “Peter Rabbit” books.

Peter sneaks off from the meeting to sulk and spend time by himself. He wanders into the seedier areas of the city to the sound of Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” playing on the movie’s soundtrack. It’s in this part of the city that Peter meets a rabbit who’s about the same age as Peter’s father would be if Peter’s father were still alive.

This older rabbit’s name is Barnabas (voiced by Lennie James), who is a mischief maker and a longtime thief. After causing a ruckus at an outdoor grocery stand, Barnabas and Peter run away and hide in various places, including a mailbox and a recycling bin.

During their conversations where they get to know each other, Peter tells Barnabas about his family’s up-and-down history with the McGregors. Based on this information, Barnabas then tells Peter that he knew Peter’s father. An instant connection is then formed between Peter and Barnabas. Barnabas is an old roughneck who seems to have a soft spot for Peter and seems to want to be Peter’s father figure/mentor.

Barnabas also introduces Peter to the animals who are the other members of Barnabas’ gang of thieves: a cat named Tom Kitten (voiced by Damon Herriman); Tom’s sister Mittens (voiced by Hayley Atwell); and a rat named Samuel Whiskers (voiced by Rupert Degas). There’s a misadventure involving a pet store called Piperson’s Pets, which has animal catchers roaming the streets, looking for stray animals to capture and sell.

The rest of the movie could have been spent on Peter being a runaway and his family trying to find him. However, it would be too divisive to audiences to have Peter separated from his family for most of the movie. Instead, Bea and Thomas find Peter, and he goes home with the rest of the family.

At home, Peter is still thinking about Barnabas, who was like an instant surrogate father to Peter and seemed to accept Peter for who he is. Peter longs to see Barnabas again and to continue to get Barnabas’ approval. And so, Peter hatches a plan to convince his family and some animal neighbors to help Barnabas and his gang on a major famer’s market heist, with dried fuit being the biggest prized possession for the thieves.

The rest of “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” shows what happens to those plans. Peter’s rabbit family members go along for the ride. Also recruited for this big heist are characters from the first “Peter Rabbit” movie: a hedgehog named Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (voiced by Sia); a pig named Pigling Bland (voiced by Ewen Leslie); a deer named Felix D’eer (voiced by Christian Gazal) who freezes at the sight of lights; a duck named Jemima Puddle-Duck (voiced by Byrne); and a badger named Tommy Brock (voiced by Sam Neill).

The neurotic JW Rooster III (voiced by Jack Andrew), with his now-older children, make recurring appearances, with the running joke that rooster thinks that the day can’t start unless he crows correctly. With all these animal characters, the humans in the story could be overshadowed. However, there’s enough of a balance and a reminder that these domesticated animals, for all of their rebellion, still rely on humans to get their food.

The comedy in “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” isn’t a laugh a minute. There’s a lot of predictable slapstick, of course, with Peter usually finding himself in trouble in one way or another. Thomas is still gangly and awkward, so he’s the human character who’s the most likely to be the butt of the slapstick jokes. Cotton-Tail brings some laughs with her ongoing pessimistic sarcasm.

“Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” also has a recurring gag where Cotton-Tail over-indulges in eating candy, gets very hyperactive from a sugar high, and then her energy level crashes and burns. A joke that doesn’t work as well is Flopsy’s decision to call herself Lavoratory because she’s tired of her identity being so intwined with her identical twin Mopsy. This decision doesn’t last, but it’s a little disappointing that the filmmakers would make one the narrator of the movie call herself a toilet and that she wasn’t smart enough to know what a lavoratory was in the first place.

The movie’s soundtrack has the same rock/pop tone as the first “Peter Rabbit” movie, with prominent placement of tunes from the 1990s and 2010s. Supergrass’ 1995 hit “Alright” seems to be the unofficial theme song for the movie, since it’s played more than once in key scenes. Gluck’s direction moves the film along at a brisk but occasionally uneven pace, since the last 10 minutes of the movie really look like the narrative of the story went on fast-forward.

The movie’s visual effects that combine live action with animation continue to look seamless, thanks to the good work of visual effects company Animal Logic, which also did the visual effects for the first “Peter Rabbit” film. Will this movie win any major awards? No. Just like the visual effects, acting and everything else in the movie “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” fulfills its purpose of providing satisfactory entertainment for people of many age groups, but the work isn’t so outstanding that people will think that it’s the best of the best.

Columbia Pictures will release “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” in U.S. cinemas on June 11, 2021. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on May 17, 2021.

Review: ‘Blackbird’ (2020), starring Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus and Anson Boon

September 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Rainn Wilson, Sam Neill, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Mia Wasikowska, Lindsay Duncan, Susan Sarandon and Anson Boon in “Blackbird” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Blackbird” (2020)

Directed by Roger Michell

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Pontsmill, Connecticut, the dramatic film “Blackbird” features an all-white cast of characters representing the upper-middle class.

Culture Clash: Long-simmering resentments cause conflicts during a family gathering for a terminally ill woman who wants to die by euthanasia.

Culture Audience: “Blackbird” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted dramas about family issues.

Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska in “Blackbird” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

Should people with a terminal disease decide when and how they want to die? It’s an ethical dilemma that has already been decided by Lily Walker, the matriarch of a well-to-do American family. Lily has multiple sclerosis and she wants her doctor husband Paul to give her a lethal dose of medication before her health further declines. The dramatic film “Blackbird” (directed by Roger Michell) is about the family gathering at Lily and Paul’s beach house in the final days that Lily has decided that she’s going to live.

“Blackbird” is a remake of the 2014 Danish film “Silent Heart,” which was written by Christian Torpe, who adapted the movie from his “Silent Heart” novel. Torpe also wrote the screenplay for “Blackbird,” which is a random title for the movie since there’s no blackbird or reference to a blackbird in the story. What’s more important is that it’s a solidly written, well-acted story that isn’t really Oscar-worthy, but it will tug at people’s heartstrings and trigger emotions because there are moments that might remind viewers of their own families.

In “Blackbird” (which takes place in the fictional city of Pontsmill, Connecticut), Lily (played by Susan Sarandon) has already come to terms with how she wants to die. Her attitude, while not exactly jubilant, is rather matter-of-fact and often jokingly sarcastic about her impending death. Lily’s husband Paul (played by Sam Neill) is trying to go about life as “normally” as possible while trying not to let it show too much how much of a heavy emotional burden he has to administer the lethal dose of medication that has been ordered specifically for the euthanasia.

Lily wants to die on her own terms because she’s losing the use of her muscles, while her medical diagnosis is that it will only be a matter of months when she will have to use a feeding tube to eat. The beginning of the movie shows members of Lily and Paul’s immediately family, as well as Lily’s longtime British best friend Liz (played by Lindsay Duncan), gathering at Lily and Paul’s home to say their goodbyes.

The family members who have gathered for this bittersweet reunion include Lily and Paul’s two daughters who are total opposites. Elder daughter Jennifer, or Jen (played by Kate Winslet), is a judgmental control freak who likes her life to be well-planned and orderly—and it bothers her if other people’s lives aren’t in order too. Younger daughter Anna (played by Mia Wasikowska) has a very messy life, including jumping around from job to job and being treated for bipolar disorder. It should come as no surprise that Jen and Anna don’t get along very well and have been estranged for years.

Trying not to get in the middle of this sibling feud are their respective love partners: Jen’s mild-mannered and nerdy husband Michael (played Rainn Wilson) and Anna’s on-again/off-again partner Chris (played by Bex Taylor-Klaus), who appears to be nonbinary. (Taylor-Klaus is nonbinary in real life.) Also at this family reunion is Jen and Michael’s teenage son Jonathan (played by Anson Boon), who’s going through that teenage phase where he’s easily embarrassed and irritated by things his parents say and do. Jonathan (who is about 16 or 17 years old) is a well-behaved, academically talented student, but he wants to be an actor, which is a career choice that he knows his parents won’t like.

The movie does not show how Lily and Paul told their loved ones the news about Lily’s planned euthanasia, but by the time the group has gathered at the house, they all know about it, except for Jonathan. Paul eventually takes Jonathan aside for a private talk to break the news to him. Jonathan is shocked, but he’s willing to accept whatever Lily wants because he loves and respects his grandmother. In fact, Lily is the first person in the family whom Jonathan tells that he wants to be an actor. She encourages him to pursue this goal.

But since this is a drama about a family reunion, it isn’t long before the family friction starts. Jen and Anna haven’t seen each other in some years. While they’re alone together, Jen expresses disappointment that Anna wasn’t at their father’s birthday and at Jonathan’s school recital, even though Jen sent several reminders. Anna said she was too busy and really wanted to be there. However, it’s pretty obvious to observant viewers from Anna’s tone of voice and body language that Anna has been avoiding family gatherings because she doesn’t want to be around Jen.

Jen isn’t shy about expressing her disapproval of Anna being unable to settle on a professional career. (It’s not really stated what Jen does with her life, which makes her morally superior attitude even more insufferable.) When she asks Anna how her dance program is going, Anna tells Jen that she’s dropped out of the program. Jen then scolds Anna for not completing the program, as well as Anna giving up on past attempts to train for jobs in yoga therapy, acupuncture and quilting. These were programs that their parents paid for, so Jen tries to make Anna feel guilty by implying that her parents are wasting their money on Anna.

Jen then proceeds to annoy Anna even more when she admonishes Anna for bringing Chris to this intimate and sensitive family reunion, because Jen had asked Anna not to invite Chris. Anna tells Jen that if Jen can bring her husband Michael to this reunion, then Anna can bring Chris. Anna angrily says to Jen, “Chris happens to my husband.” Jen replies, “Are you sure you’re even gay?”

Jen’s apparent homophobia isn’t the only reason why she doesn’t approve of Anna and Chris’ relationship. Anna and Chris (who are dating but don’t live together) have had a rocky romance, and Jen thinks Chris is a lower-class person who isn’t a good fit for their family. Unfortunately, as Jen is telling Anna about how Chris isn’t worthy of being part of their family, Chris walks into the room and overhears this part of the conversation, and then walks out of the room embarrassed.

And as if Jen couldn’t be more condescending and insulting, she tells Anna: “Can you give Mom this whole weekend and not have it revolve around you, Anna?” At this point, Anna has had enough of Jen’s lectures and explodes: “Can you quit being a fucking bitch?”

Of course, there are more arguments that take place, as is typical for movies about family reunions. Most of the conflicts revolve around Anna and Jen. Anna confides in Chris that she secretly plans to prevent Lily’s euthanasia by calling 911 to report a suicide attempt. Why? Because Anna doesn’t want Lily to die and she wants to spend more time with her mother to make up for time that they spent apart.

And since this is a movie about family reunions, it has the usual trope about secrets being revealed. One thing that’s not a secret is that Liz used to date Paul, before Paul ever met Lily. What is a secret, which Liz and Lily (who used to be free-spirited hippies) discuss while they walk on the beach together, is that back in the early ’70s, they made a drunken attempt to become lesbian lovers, but it didn’t work out. They have a laugh about it all these years later.

The family has gathered in November, close to Thanksgiving, but one of Lily’s last wishes is that they have their Christmas celebration early. She asks Paul to make the Christmas dinner and Michael to go outside and cut down a small tree that will be used for Christmas decorations. This family dinner, where Lily gives everyone a personal gift from her, is one of the best scenes in the movie. Sensitive viewers should have tissues on hand for this tearjerking moment.

With this high caliber of talent in the cast, it’s no surprise that the acting in the movie is top-notch. It’s a story that could easily be adapted into a play, since most of the action takes place inside the house. The beach setting (the movie was actually filmed in Chichester, England, not Connecticut) is lovely, but it’s not very essential to the story.

As good as the acting is in the movie, “Blackbird” doesn’t quite have what it takes to be a movie worthy of a lot of prestigious awards. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the movie, but so much of the “family reunion when someone is dying” aspect has been done before in a familiar manner in other movies, that there’s nothing extraordinary about the way that “Blackbird” tells this type of story. It’s not exactly like a formulaic “disease of the week TV movie,” but the character development is lacking in some ways.

The men in the movie are written as incomplete sketches who mostly react to what the strong-willed women in the family (Lily and Jen) want. Paul essentially admits that he’s just carrying out Lily’s demands, when he tells Liz in a private conversation that people who decide to die by euthanasia are rarely insane or depressed, but they are “deeply controlling.” Jonathan isn’t quite a man yet, but his personality is also fairly generic. He shows typical signs of teen rebellion to both of his parents, but he’s willing to please his beloved grandmother Lily.

The conflicts between Jen and Anna suck up a lot of the emotions in the story, which leaves little room for viewers to really get to know Paul and Michael and what they are feeling. Anna and Jen’s love/hate relationship with each other often leaves Chris feeling like a helpless outsider, since Chris has been dating Anna off and on for about three years, and the issues between Anna and Jen have been going on much longer than that. Lily’s unconditional acceptance of Chris goes a long way in how Jen eventually warms up to Chris. There’s a very good scene that Chris and Jen have together where they confront the awkward family tension that has existed between them.

“Blackbird” isn’t a perfect film, but it realistically raises issues that will make people think about what they would do if someone in their family chose euthanasia as a way to die. How much time would be enough time to prepare the family? What grudges can or can’t be resolved before the loved one dies? And what if someone in the family objects to the euthanasia and wants to stop it, even if it means getting family members into legal trouble? There are no easy answers to these questions, but “Blackbird” is a compelling look at how a fictional family deals with these very real and emotionally complicated dilemmas.

Screen Media Films, in association with Fathom Events, released “Blackbird” in select U.S. cinemas for two nights of previews on September 14 and September 15, 2020. The movie expands to more U.S. cinemas and is available on VOD on September 18, 2020.

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 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.

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