Movie Review: Teresa Palmer goes lightweight with “Ride Like a Girl”

“Ride Like a Girl” is a feel-good tale of pluck, family and breaking gender barriers in the family business.

The “family business” here is jockeying, something every one of Paddy Payne’s ten offspring took up, under daddy’s supervision. A competitive profession in horse-racing mad modern-day Australia, that setting suggests risk in pursuit of glory, and in this case, triumphing over the most notoriously sexist cultures in the English speaking world.

It’s a sentimentalized biography of Michelle Payne, the first female jockey to win Australia’s most prestigious horse race, the two mile long Melbourne Cup,which has been around since 1861. And if it pulls its punches on the sexism thing, sanitizes the extreme measures undertaken by riders to “make weight” and burnishes horse racing by leaving out the unpleasant business of a horse dying in a race every three days, well, all good family fun, right?

Sam Neill plays Paddy the patriarch, a warm but stubborn widower who presides over a noisome riot of children after his wife’s death. He piles the brood into an old ambulance to deliver them to (Catholic) church, doesn’t get too bent about food fights at Sunday dinner, and raises one and (almost) all to be what he knows how to teach them to be — jockeys.

Of the two youngest siblings, Michelle “Shelley” and Stevie, only one will carry the family name into the saddle. Stevie has Down’s Syndrome. The two are thick as thieves, sneaking under the dinner table to devour all the dessert during the chaos of that food fight.

Shelley (Summer North) is as willful as her dad, and being disciplined sends her off in a huff. We see her dragging a shovel down the driveway.

“Where’re you going with that, Little Girl?”

“To dig up Mum,” because she’d treat her with more indulgence.

Years later, Dad’s still calling her “Little Girl,” and Michelle (Teresa Palmer of “Lights Out” and “Hacksaw Ridge”) has become a problem student at Catholic school, slipping out of the classroom several times each day. Sister Dominique (Magda Szubanski) suspects bulimia.

Dad shrugs that off with a “Sister, you’ve obviously never jockeyed” crack. But the good sister works on daddy’s “little girl,” trying to convince her there are options open to her other than the family business.

Her dad’s peers are dismissive of her dream (female jockeys aren’t rare at this point, especially in her family) — “Girls don’t ride in the Melbourne Cup!”

But Paddy is the sage, teaching her “patience,” that “when a gap (between other riders) appears, that’s God talking to you,” and that “a horse gallops with his lungs, perseveres with his heart and he wins with his character.

Neill, like the real Paddy Payne, a New Zealander, is at his warm and crusty best in a role that gives him all of the movie’s best lines.

“How can a horse that was winning come in last, Dad?” his son Stevie asks.

“Because he was fast at the wrong end of the race!”

Actress turned director Rachel Griffiths gives her actors their moments and makes the most of the real Stevie Payne, playing himself in the adult scenes. A montage of “She got last, Dad” commentaries amusingly gets across Michelle’s struggles to master her craft.

Setting those struggles to The Cranberries’ “Dreams” is a tad on-the-nose, but that’s how the game is played in sentimental biopics like this.

There’s a father-daughter rift, Michelle faces the brunt of Oz sexism trying to make it on her own, tragedy, more struggles and triumph play out the hand this story gives us.

Palmer, who just turned 34, may never let us forget she’s a trifle too old and experienced to be playing the callow high school and college age Michelle. Those scenes pass, though (the real Payne came to fame at 30) and she makes the most of the limited drama the screenplay gives her.

She gets across the tomboy nature of the character best in a wedding moment, scrambling to get her shoes on as she stumbles into the church late, catching a bridesmaid’s bouquet on the fly as she stumbles to her place in line.

Director Griffiths, an actress who has given plenty of such “real” moments in a career spanning “Muriel’s Wedding” and “The Rookie,” finds a few places in the script to suggest that familiar rhythms of life-being-lived touch — Paddy’s fatherly way of helping her mount up, etc.

But playing down the gender barrier — which is the whole point of telling this story — Michelle had to overcome mutes the impact of the drama. We get only a glimpse of the bitching condescension of the male jockeys, barking and griping at her mid-race as well, the uncomfortably crowded unisex post-race whirlpool and the creepy come-ons of a trainer she wants to ride for, shortchanges “Ride Like a Girl.”

Big emotional moments play like teases, and Palmer is given no chance to show us the interior life of the rider. No, there’s no “love story” because the movie suggests she never so much as considered a social life.

The whole affair plays as muzzled, truncated and incomplete — a ten furlong dash through a two mile (16 furlong) race.

MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements, language and suggestive comments

Cast: Teresa Palmer, Sam Neill, Stevie Payne, Genevieve Morris, Sullivan Stapleton, Brooke Satchwell, Henry Nixon and Magda Szubanski

Credits: Directed by Rachel Griffiths, script by Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie. A Saban Films release.

Running time: 1:38

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