Producers: Conor Allyn, Jake Allyn, Rob Allyn, Don Lepore, Josh Plasse and Keith J. Leman   Director: Jake Allyn   Screenplay:  Jake Allyn and Josh Plasse   Cast: C. Thomas Howell, Jake Allyn, Annabeth Gish, Josh Plasse, Forre J. Smith, Scott Reeves, Patrick Murney, Laci Kay Booth and Zia Carlock   Distributor: Well Go USA

Grade: C

Here’s a film about an ex-con struggling for redemption so loaded down with melodramatic contrivance that by the close one might be tempted to chuckle over its excesses despite—or perhaps because of—its utter seriousness.  Set in the world of cowpokes and rodeos, “Ride” is a family saga that sags under the weight of its determination to preach about picking yourself up and continuing to fight when everything seems stacked against you. The message is delivered with a sledgehammer in one of the screenplay’s many on-the-nose bits of dialogue, when wise, grizzled grandpa Al (Forre J. Smith) says to his troubled grandson Pete (Jake Allyn) after the boy’s bull-riding confidence has taken a hit, “Champs ain’t made ridin’—they’re made in them few seconds right after they fall.”

Pete is the son of John Hawkins (C. Thomas Howell), an erstwhile rodeo star now a struggling rancher in small-town Stephenville, Texas (though the picture was actually shot in Tennessee), desperate to secure the money he needs to give his daughter Virginia (Zia Carlock) the chance of surviving the cancer that’s returned after several years of remission; on the very day she was supposed to go home from the local hospital, the family received a doleful new diagnosis.  Getting her the best care, an experimental treatment at the Las Colinas Oncology Center in Dallas (a place mentioned so often that it seems an instance of product placement), requires him to raise $160,000 (even an installment plan requires an immediate payment of $40,000), and though he’s willing even to sell off his most precious horse, he’s unable to cover the cost.

John and most of the family, except his father Al, have been estranged from Pete since he went to prison four years earlier for reasons that will be fully revealed only late in the movie (though one early scene in a church indicates he was responsible for the death of a woman), but involved drug and alcohol dependence.  Now the boy has emerged with a chip on his shoulder against John and his mother Monica (Annabeth Gish), who’s separated from John and also happens to be the local sheriff.  He’s also uncomfortable with his younger brother Noah (Josh Plasse, who co-wrote the script with director-star Allyn), a straight-arrow kid who plans to go off to college with his girlfriend Libby (Laci Kay Booth).  She’s not just vivacious and supportive but pretty good with a guitar and a country song, as she demonstrates in a number at a local watering hole where the whooping cowboys congregate.

Pete wants to get back to his old rodeo life, but he needs a stake to return to the bull-riding competition; so he makes an agreement with sleazy local drug dealer Tyler (Patrick Murney) for the cash he needs (along, presumably, with some of his product), promising to pay him back with the prize from an expected win riding no fewer than three bulls in succession.  He does in fact win, but having learned of his sister’s condition, he chooses to turn over the money to his father, who declines the offer (the amount is insufficient anyway).  That doesn’t sit well with Tyler, who understandably feels betrayed.  Pete responds by concocting a plan to rob Tyler to get the money John needs.  When the plan goes awry, it leaves him and his father with a body to dispose of. 

Inevitably that attracts the attention of the local law, and though Sheriff Monica is understandably reluctant to look into the matter too closely, her ambitious deputy (Scott Reeves), who covets her job (and seems to have more than passing interest in her, too) takes it on himself to do so, creating a moral dilemma for his boss.  But a twist ending solves that matter (all too easily, one might think), and an equally convenient revelation about one ramification of Pete’s long-ago mistake also seems much too tidy.

This is obviously an overstuffed tale, part medical tearjerker and part thriller, with a surfeit of characters, subplots and tonal shifts, which together strain credulity.  It actually might have worked better as a novel, the breadth of the printed page compensating for a multi-layered plot whose parts are contrived ultimately to fit together too neatly.  One could compare it to “Home from the Hill,” another family saga with near Biblical overtones; the 1958 book by William Humphrey was widely praised, but its weaknesses were accentuated in Vincente Minnelli’s 1960 film, which at the time was dismissed as an over-the-top melodrama, though it has since, of course, been re-evaluated.

In one respect “Ride” is very different from Minnelli’s film.  The latter was garish, with a glossy, artificial look; “Ride” mostly opts for a gritty, grubby naturalism (captured in Bart Mangrum’s stark production design).  But Allyn also demonstrates a penchant for hazy montages that break the mold in flashback dreams and bull-riding sequences; cinematographer Keith J. Leman and editor Owen Jackson) do a decent job in fashioning them, but they’re overused and affected.         

In one important way, though, the two pictures are similar: by far the best performance comes from the father figure, played by Robert Mitchum in “Home” and Howell here.  Looking genuinely weather-beaten and emotionally drained, the one-time teen heartthrob is utterly persuasive as a man at the edge of a breakdown; the sole drawback is that he and Smith—who draws a folksy, Sam Elliott-style figure as Al—appear much too close in age to convince as father and son. 

The rest of the cast is far less impressive.  Gish is surprisingly stilted, even when Monica is emotionally torn toward the close, while Plasse is just bland and Murney chews the scenery too lustily.  Worst of all, Allyn is a pallid protagonist.  He looks the part, but his pose of impassivity is all too convincing; he simply never brings any inner life to Pete.  It was probably a mistake to direct himself, in a script he also co-wrote; that sort of multitasking requires a degree of expertise beyond even many well-seasoned actors, and it certainly eludes Allyn.

But it’s questionable whether the most skilled director and star could have made this overripe script a winner.  Al tells Pete at another point that a successful ride requires him to “Be the bull.”  But there’s a difference between a bull and BS.