High in the saddle: Teresa Palmer plays jockey Michelle Payne in ‘Ride Like a Girl’
RIDE LIKE A GIRL *** (98 minutes) PG
Though the production of Rachel Griffiths’ inspiring, undemanding, feel-good family film has nothing to do with Disney it could easily be mistaken for a Disney film. And that’s no diss.
In retelling the true story of Ballarat jockey Michelle Payne, who became the first female to ride the winner of the Melbourne Cup in 2015, Griffiths (working from a screenplay by Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie) has shaped a winning girl-against-the-world tale of personal triumph that dutifully follows all the family film conventions to deliver a yarn that is satisfying and heartfelt.
It’s an impressive debut for veteran actor Griffiths, who embraces the need for big moments, over-sized emotions and clear-cut characters with a warm confidence, creating an easily relatable story bolstered by a sturdy central performance by Teresa Palmer as Payne.
We meet her as a young, sparky girl full of the type of ambition TV news crews love. The youngest in a motherless family of ten, she is more than aware that boys traditionally have the running when it comes to horse racing.
Still, her father Paddy (Sam Neill in a role that fits him like a favourite cardigan) is happy to impart the exact type of movie-dad encouragement that will help her hurdle her insecurities and flaws – which are duly highlighted in the film – and follow her dream of winning the Cup.
Swiftly paced and sculpted to a very friendly running time, Ride Like A Girl is a solidly entertaining film graced with an underlying set of progressive values about equality, talent, respect and tolerance.
Notably, Payne’s brother Stevie, who has Down Syndrome and was a big part of her success, is played by the real Stevie, heralding another step forward in the film portrayal of people with disabilities.
Given the sound backhander the film delivers to sexism much can be made of how “with it” the film’s values are, but you know what? When you boil it all down everything in Ride Like a Girl comes down to the good old Aussie ethos of giving someone a “fair go”. If the movie champions any one value above all others, it’s that.
Nothing happens in this film dramatically that isn’t driven by the Australian tradition of setting aside prejudices and custom (however reluctantly) to allow somebody to have a crack at something, provided they’ve demonstrated genuine talent.
Sure, we see Payne receive guffaws of sexist exclusion in the film but they’re never more than expressions of ignorance. Once the ignorance is addressed by her performance on the track, the hot air evaporates.
Thankfully, Griffiths keeps the dramatic focus on the characters and spares us any embedded diatribes or point scoring about sexual politics.
In telling Payne’s story the film holds to the principle that just because a film has a strong female lead doesn’t mean it is automatically obliged to buy into some faddish feminist agenda (provided you can discern one, of course).
Indeed, one of the terrific things about the film is how it’s primed as an aspirational story about individual triumph rather than as a singularly feminist one.
While Griffiths naturally highlights the male domination of the sport and Payne’s determination to break through it, her bumpy ascent is based on merit and the respect she earns comes as a result of hard-earned success.
The film has been criticised for not being more politically “woke” and for not getting into the nitty gritty of the horse racing industry, given how the film’s premiere was protested by animal rights activists.
The answer to all such carping is simple: it’s nonsense. If you begin going off on such tangents you’d be making a different film.
Another notable thing about Ride Like a Girl is that it serves to reminds us all, as did Oddball and Paper Planes, that the Australian film industry can, indeed, knock out a decent family film when it sets its mind to it.
Furthermore, how great is it that Michelle Payne’s story wasn’t allowed to fade away and become some distant memory before somebody got around to making a film?
In that regard the film follows the American model, which suggests you celebrate your heroes promptly, and in a way that is enjoyable and illuminating even to those who might not otherwise care much about the world they inhabit.
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK * (108 minutes) M
You’d have to be part of that treasured horror movie demographic who jumps with fright whenever somebody spills a box of popcorn to get much spook value out of this slice of sub-Stephen King schlock.
The basic story involves a bunch of kids – kids! kids! It’s always kids! – who stumble upon a haunted book in a haunted house that gives the filmmakers sufficient excuse to conjure up a load of singularly unscary ghouls.
The film actually starts out well on Halloween night in 1968 as a group of nerds strike back at their bully tormentors. Things rapidly deteriorate from there.
This mess is directed by Norwegian Andre Ovredal (anyone remember the fun Trollhunter from 2010? That was his puppy) and is produced by – wait for it – Guillermo del Toro. That should be warning enough.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE ** (105 minutes) MA
The prospect of a zombie apocalypse film by veteran arthouse filmmaker Jim Jarmusch – Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, Mystery Train, Night on Earth, Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Coffee and Cigarettes, etc – sounds almost too enticing. Regrettably, the execution just doesn’t do justice to the concept.
Set in a small town surrounded by woods, the locals (including Bill Murray and Adam Driver as cops) have to deal with the Undead rising from graves after a polar fracking operation goes bad.
The leisurely pacing that has become Jarmusch’s signature works well early on but not when things need to get nasty.
Not helping matters is a gimmick where certain characters break character and talk through the “fourth wall” – the invisible one between the film and the audience – at the audience about the film. It’s a stupid idea that makes a bad film worse.
THE GOLDFINCH * (149 minutes) M
A dismal, interminable drama about a painting called The Goldfinch and the effect it has on snooty New York teen Theodore Decker (Ansel Elgort from The Fault in Our Stars) as he tries coping with the loss of his mother to a terrorist bomb and an ex-alcoholic father (Luke Wilson). It’s very hard to reconcile how the film’s director John Crowley also made the 2015 charmfest Brooklyn. Please don’t waste your time – all 149 minutes of it.
UGLY DOLLS ** (87 minutes) G
Oh dear. Even undemanding kids in need of distraction might find it hard not to get restless during this word-heavy, woke animation about a group of Ugly Dolls (based on the toy line) who want to be deemed pretty enough to go out into the real world and be assigned a child. The messaging comes with sledgehammer subtlety, the visuals offer a world of candy-coloured dullness and, despite a stellar voice cast – Kelly Clarkson; Jane Lynch; Wanda Sykes; Blake Shelton; Pitbull; Emma Roberts; Gabriel Iglesias; and Nick Jonas – veteran animator and director Kelly Asbury (Smurfs: The Lost Village; Shrek 2; Spirit; Gnomeo & Juliet) just can’t bring the affair to life. Maybe it’ll play better once it hits the stream.
MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN *** (94 minutes) M
Replete with archival footage, concept drawings and interivews, director by Alexandre O. Philippe (who made the fabulous 2010 doco The People vs George Lucas) takes a deep dive into the making of Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien and explores why this film – now 40 years old – remains such a pop cultural touchstone that refuses to age. Artists HR Giger and Francis Bacon and director Scott are all highlighted, yet the film’s chief purpose is to pull focus on the work of the late Dan O’Bannon (died 2009) who first dreamt up the idea. Amongst the interviewed is Veronica Cartwright, who was splashed with more blood than anybody during the famous chestburster scene. A must for fans.
BUOYANCY ***1/2 (92 minutes; subtitled) M
The brutal nature of the modern slave trade in South East Asia is exposed in often shocking and violent detail in Australian director Rodd Rathjen’s extraordinary, gruelling debut feature.
Seen through the eyes of impoverished 14-year old Cambodian boy Chakra (Sarm Heng) the simple story follows him as he leaves home in search of a better paying job that will help his family.
Lead by promises of lucrative factory work Chakra arrives in the city but promptly finds himself ensnared in the human slave trade.
Soon Chakra becomes imprisoned on a small fishing trawler captained by a brutal thug called Rom Ran (Thanawut Kasro), a criminal whose favourite type of on-board discipline involves dismemberment.
Survival becomes Chakra’s key concern as he curries favour with the crew, presenting them with the best fish from each load of sealife they dredge up from the sea floor, most of which will become pet food.
The deftness of Rathjen’s direction can be seen in the shifting shades of Chakra’s nature. The youthful light of Chakra’s soul slowly darken as his innocence ebbs away and he realises the cost that survival will exact.
There are some pretty intense scenes of violence in the film but, as with Jennifer Kent in The Nightingale, Rathjen has an instinct for knowing just how much to show to deliver full impact without needing to go graphic.
Oddly, yet deliberately, the film often takes on a lyrical feel in stretches where there is little dialogue and the boat is framed by a picturesque sea. Cinematographer Michael Latham captures the cruel irony of the horrors
and deprivations that take place on the boat are framed by the exotic, indifferent beauty of the locale.
Though it is not stressed strongly enough, the film’s drama is intended to show us the first link in the supply chain of products that end up on Western supermarket shelves, and the slave labour involved.
The film is designed to deliver a powerful anti-slavery message and has received wide acclaim. At the Berlin Film Festival Buoyancy won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and it will be Australia’s submission for the Best International Feature Film Oscar (where it will compete for a berth on the short list with about 80 films from around the world).