I am no fan of the Melbourne Cup Race; gambling, horse-racing and frippery do not appeal to me. However, Ride Like a Girl captivated me, drawing me into the story with its well-written dialogue peppered with wry humour, beautiful camera work and superb acting. It is no wonder this film is the number one Australian film of the year at the box office, still ranking number 5 in the nation after 5 weeks in the theatres.
Betting and horse-racing were certainly elements of the film, but it was about far more than that – it was about one young woman’s triumph over adversity, persevering against deep-seated prejudice, physical barriers, and personal heartache to fulfil her telos, her lifelong goal, the fruit of a childhood nurtured by a family passionately in love with the sport of horse-racing.
Ride Like a Girl opens with Michelle Payne (Teresa Palmer) kissing her mother’s wedding ring as she prepares to race. Her mother Mary passed away in a motor vehicle accident when she was just six months old, leaving her father Paddy (Sam Neill, of Jurassic Park and Thor: Ragnarok fame) to raise ten rambunctious children.
The film portrays the joys and challenges of growing up in a large Catholic family, arriving late to Mass, disrupting the homily, fighting over chores and pilfered dessert. It also shows the quiet anguish of a widower feeling the keen loss of his wife, unable to maintain control over the antics of his lively offspring as he drifts off into a sombre reverie; and the pain of a little girl yearning for the mother she never really had the chance to know.
At the same time, we see Paddy noticing when his youngest child marches off in a disgruntled huff, quietly following her out the gate and gently comforting her when she expresses her sorrow at her mother’s absence. These tender, vulnerable moments throughout the film help us enter into the hearts of the Payne family, feeling each grief and happiness as our own.
We also see Paddy studiously training his children in the art of horse-racing, teaching them to have patience, how to discern the best parts of the track to steer their mounts onto, and how to pace themselves while racing, then seize the golden opportunity to pull ahead.
“When the gap opens, that’s God speaking to you,” he says, “and you must take it, because it will be gone faster than you can say your mother’s name.” Love of God, love of their wife and mother, and love of horse-racing binds the Payne family as they advance through the seasons of life.
Paddy also teaches his children to treat their horses with kindness – “No whipping!” he admonishes, taking a play-whip out of a child’s hand after an exhilarating mock race around the garden with siblings as pretend horses.
Indeed, the movie opens with a line reassuring viewers that no animals were harmed in this film, and is preceded by a warning against gambling addiction.
Another star of the show is Stevie Payne, Michelle’s brother with Down Syndrome, who plays himself in the movie. He is a truly lovable and admirable character, with a gift for training horses.
I found one particular scene very beautiful – when Stevie helps to pull a wheelchair out from the car and eases his injured sister into it. You never really see people with disabilities assisting others on the big screen, though it is a part of normal life. Stevie is a capable young man with a beautiful personality, a steady presence in his sister’s life.
Tragedy strikes again in the Payne family, and Paddy withdraws from Michelle, afraid that she will meet with a fatal injury in her headlong push to win. It is exquisitely painful when a parent, once close to you, chooses to cease their support and communication, though their fears may be understandable.
We see Michelle contending with this pain on top of the pain of repeated rejection from race-horse owners, unwilling to let a young woman near their precious horses.
However, with help from a family friend sent by Paddy – he is not altogether unfeeling, quite the opposite – and some daring personal initiative, Michelle finally secures a spot, and tenaciously works her way up.
The faith of the Paynes and their Ballarat community is never preachy, but always quietly present – in the crosses they wear, the priest who turns up to comfort Paddy in turmoil and then celebrates his daughter’s glorious wedding, and the sisters led by redoubtable Loreto College principal Sister Dominique (Magda Szubanski) who huffs over Michelle sneaking out of class to listen to her sister’s races in the loo, then turns up on the day of the big race to bet every last cent on Michelle despite the odds.
The rich tapestry of the Paynes’ busy lives is underpinned by the love and commitment of their local church, their spiritual family who is always there for the Paynes’ highs and lows. Rachel Griffiths, making her directing debut, has done a wonderful job portraying ordinary lives enriched by a living faith. (It probably helped that her uncle is a Jesuit priest.)
Ride Like a Girl is a splendid picture of an Australian country family, the colourful subculture of horse-racing as well as the grit and sacrifice behind it, and one woman’s determination to forge through all obstacles to make her dream come true.
It is a moving testament to the capacity of the human spirit, buoyed by deep faith and a strong community. As Paddy Payne says, “The only thing that matters is the odds you give yourself.” Watch it, and be inspired.