Given the uncertainty and doom-and-gloom news in the world, I am gravitating toward movies that are uplifting and positive, which also allows me to escape into the world on the screen. This week, that positive escapism movie you can stream via Amazon Prime Video is “Ride Like a Girl.” It’s the story of Michelle Payne, the first woman to ever compete in and win the Melbourne Cup (think Kentucky Derby but in Australia), starring Teresa Palmer as Michelle and Sam Neill as her father, Paddy.
Michelle, the youngest of 10, grew up without her mother, as she died when Michelle was an infant. Paddy (Neill), a horseman on a ranch, raised his children, all of whom became jockeys or involved in the sport of horse racing. We meet this chaotic and loving family in real life using found footage and photographs and then are quickly transported into the narrative feature as Michelle’s (Summer North) life as a youngster unfolds. We immediately see the special bond she has with her older brother, Stevie, who has down syndrome, but it is her relationship with her father and his need to protect and guide his baby girl that catapults Michelle’s life into the fast lane.
It is at this point Palmer portrays Michelle with absolute ease and perfection. Michelle rebels against her father and finds herself always jumping hurdles to not only be accepted as a viable competitor in the horse racing arena but also to be respected. And if you think this is happening in the distant past, think again.
The story demonstrates the difficulties a woman has of breaking into this particular good ol’ boys’ club, yet it never overstates this element. It is Michelle’s tenacity, confidence and drive that create her successes, no matter the road blocks laid before her. Even deeper than this storyline is the element of relationships, particularly between her and her father.
Michelle’s life truly is a movie, literally and figuratively, as she encounters a situation that would have put an end to anyone’s dreams of being a jockey, let alone a champion. Again, these elements are never heavy handed but tactfully demonstrated, which elicits emotion and connection to the characters.
Both North and Palmer give us a thoughtful performance as the young and the “older” version of Michelle. Palmer appears to connect with her character on a deeper level, and she shines as she both fights and competes, but the gentler side of her never is lost, and we see this with Stevie, who is portrayed as an adult by the real Stevie Payne. And Neill, of course, easily portrays the gruff, stubborn-yet-loving father who doesn’t always communicate with his words. Together with Palmer, we are transported into their world of racing, family, grief and love, forgetting the world around us at least for a couple of hours.
“Ride Like a Girl” finds great balance between drama and humor. This isn’t a comedy, but life in the Payne household and within their small community provides plenty of laughs. From church sermons to skipping college classes and Stevie’s innocently honest perception of the world, we find ourselves laughing and lightening the overall intense and sometimes dark dramatic aspects.
Of course, we all know how this ends — it’s in the description, after all — but that does not in any way take away from the intensity of the story. Each and every horse race seems to have an unknown outcome, and the cinematography places you directly on a horse with hooves clapping in the loose flying dirt and jockeys edging into tight spaces to pass. It’s not until the race is over you realize you were holding your breath.
When you combine a heartfelt, true story with underplayed and authentic performances and incredible cinematography, your heart will race as fast as the horses, and you can escape into the Land Down Under and the sport of horse racing.
Just as the film began with real footage and photos, so, too, does it end. It’s a winner.
Reel Talk rating: 4 Stars