At first glance, Lola Quivoron’s Rodeo looks like an artful, French version of The Fast and the Furious — you know, before the saga went bonkers and literally blasted into space. Engines rev, high-speed heists thrill, and people talk about the importance of family, whether biological or forged. Newcomer Julie Ledru even has the wild energy of a young Michelle Rodriguez. Yet this film set in the world of French motorbike gangs feels more like kin to Raw or Titane; there are undercurrents of danger, desire, and unpredictability in Rodeo even beyond the risks of street racing, with much of it rising from the combined fierceness and vulnerability of Ledru’s character and performance.
The audience meets Ledru’s Julia (aka Unknown) bursting out of an apartment, furious over her stolen bike and pushing off the multiple men who try to hold her back. We’re immediately thrown into the deep end of the action, and it’s unclear exactly where we are or what is happening at first, but we already know Julia is an absolute force. In the next scene, the young woman tames her wild mane with spit, then steals a bike from a rich, preppy dad, giving the finger as she rides away with glee from the man who underestimated her. Whoever this badass is, we’ll follow her, even though we know it’s likely nowhere good.
She tries to join in the street antics of a motorbike gang, but she is initially rebuffed, getting called epithets like “whore” and “weasel face.” Women don’t ride bikes — or at least they don’t ride them solo or show up alone to the races. She claws her way into the B-more crew, with some of the men welcoming her and others doing anything to keep her out of their circle. When their incarcerated boss, Domino (Sébastien Schroeder), learns of her aptitude for scamming and stealing bikes, she finds her place in the group, and she grows closer to his wife, Ophélie (Antonia Buresi) and son (Cody Schroeder). However, danger still threatens on both the road and amidst the gang, especially as they attempt their biggest heist yet.
Quivoron’s work in documentary gives her fiction debut a verité sensibility, making it feel like half of a solid double feature with fellow documentarian-turned-drama-director Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen. Both films explore how young women operate in male-dominated spaces and take a realistic yet vibrant approach to filming the feats on skateboards and motorbikes. However, while Skate Kitchen remains fully grounded in the skating subculture of New York City, Rodeo infuses its story with surrealism, occasionally allowing dreams and visions to break into the otherwise naturalistic storytelling. This doesn’t always feel organic, but there’s power in the images on screen, especially in the film’s penultimate scene.
Quivoron and cinematographer Raphaël Vandenbussche embed the audience into the B-more crew, riding alongside them as they perform tricks and speed away from cops. Jaw-dropping shots abound in the stunts they capture, the kinetic handheld camerawork, and the bright colors and lighting that permeate each frame. But as impressive as the action and visuals are, Ledru is even more astounding as the fearless Julia, whether her face shows us her rage at men’s treatment of her or her pure joy of riding. Even when the film stalls for short periods, the first-time actress still fires on all cylinders. Her Julia displays the kind of unfuckwithable spirit that is both enviable and terrifying, but there’s still something tender at her core that makes her feel human in every moment.
For a film ostensibly about the mechanical, Rodeo is obsessed with the physical. Julia sages her limbs as a purifying ritual, and when rides go wrong, she has the coolest head around the carnage, with her quick work helping injured bikers. She’s a chameleon, changing her appearance and demeanor to get what she wants in any situation. Ledru delivers her wonderfully mouthy lines with brio, but it’s her physicality in the role that elevates both her performance and the film.
Rodeo is a hell of a narrative debut, full of bold choices and a strong voice from both Quivoron and her lead actress. It hums with energy from its frenetic opening, giving just a few moments of rest from its dynamic approach to its coming-of-age story.
“Rodeo” is out tomorrow in limited release.