Over the years the Melbourne Cup has lost its identity as an event and become synonymous with controversy. The treatment of the horses is quite often at the forefront of media coverage and, most recently, the backlash experienced from the announcement of Taylor Swift as the headline performer was deafening; however coincidentally it may be, the singer has since cancelled her appearance, citing “scheduling conflicts” with a promotional tour of Asia.
Perhaps almost in a bid to steer focus away from the Cup’s downfall, Rachel Griffiths (making her directorial debut) opts for schmaltz and optimism by placing the focus on Michelle Payne, the first female jockey to ever win the race. Michelle’s family were all horse riding enthusiasts, living with the animals and training them daily for race purposes, almost as if her destiny to win the Cup was predetermined from a young age, though as Ride Like A Girl displays, she wasn’t always considered the favourite in doing so.
Opening with a documentary-style voice-over, Ride Like A Girl gets off on an awkward note as the narrating audio feels more in-tune with a 60 Minutes segment rather than a feature film. It also plays rather fast and loose with Michelle’s life as her childhood, teen years, and eventual adulthood are all presented within the film’s first half which, rather disappointingly, highlights that Michelle herself isn’t interesting enough to sustain a feature-length production. That’s not to take away her remarkable achievements as a woman in a male-dominated sport, nor the obstacles she had to overcome during her youth, but her winning the Cup is really the film’s only motivational push, and there isn’t too much to her beyond that. At least not the way Griffiths and screenwriters Andrew Knight (Hacksaw Ridge) and Elise McCredie (TV’s Jack Irish) have painted her.
Whilst the film hits all the melodramatic tropes you’d expect, and not always in the most successful fashion, it’s difficult to fight against it’s ultimate buoyancy; its climactic moment featuring Michelle winning the race is a suitably emotional affair. As well, Teresa Palmer’s turn as Michelle keeps the film afloat when it threatens to buckle under mediocrity. She doesn’t have too much to chew on, but Palmer’s a charming force that she endures through it, resulting in the type of performance that saves a film from succumbing to its faults. Sam Neill is passable as her oft-disapproving father (his insistence on calling her “little girl” gets tired though, real quick), sitting comfortably within the boundaries of his character’s outline, but it’s Michelle’s real-life brother Stevie Payne who ultimately walks away with the film, his natural performance removed from any self-awareness or inexperience as an actor.
The epitome of a crowd-pleaser, Ride Like A Girl breezes by on heart and good intentions, even if a grittier, more emotional tale of Michelle’s upbringing would’ve served this story more justice. However, furthering opportunities for women to helm their choice of stories in this industry is a win in itself, and in that regard Griffiths’ debut can be considered an acceptable victory.