Parisian-born director Lola Quivoron’s debut fiction feature is an affecting and vital hybrid picture, part crime drama, part character study. Rodeo follows the exploits of Julia (Julie Ledru), a delinquent youth who boosts dirt bikes just for the thrill of it, before falling in with a gang of bikers who help her hone her skills as both a thief and a rider.
Living a dysfunctional family life, Julia exists on the margins of society, finding meaning through stealing and riding bikes. After she meets a crew of riders at an illegal gathering of bikers, it seems that she may well have found her people, all the while needing to prove herself to this group of new, often frosty peers. Quickly, however, her skills as a thief are recognised and she is brought into the gang’s more nefarious activities.
“I was born with a bike between my legs”, Julia tells one of her victims of grand theft auto. On the surface, it’s a statement of confidence and of passion, but belies a deep naïveté and guilelessness that reveals itself in fragments throughout our young protagonist’s journey. In this, Julia’s boast serves as a fitting mission statement for the film, itself a mix of cockiness and callow sweetness.
This is embodied in Ledru’s central performance, which is at once spiky and intensely vulnerable. Julia’s gaze is impenetrably tough, while the audacity of her hustle – posing as a buyer for second hand bikes before making off with them the moment the (invariably complacent male) seller drops his guard – is outstanding. Yet her hardness is also brittle, and that brittleness betrays a vulnerability, one which surfaces in moments such as her care for the doomed Abra (Dave Nsaman), barks orders at his buddies to get him to the ER after he badly crashes his bike.
Just before Abra’s accident, he teaches Julia how to wheelie her bike, telling her, “I just want to see people fly”. This formative moment for her – possibly the first time ever that someone has given her the time of day, let alone believed that she could achieve anything as simple as a motorbike trick – carries Julia throughout the film, transforming an inward-turning nihilism into a yearning for belonging. Just as Julia’s outward shows of hardness belie her inner vulnerability, so too does Rodeo’s realist presentation belie subtle elements of supernaturalism.
In at least one instance, Julia’s dreams appear to manifest in reality, while other unexplained phenomena conclude a late-stage confrontation with a hidden nemesis. These moments are intriguing – reminiscent of recent vehicular genre drama Titane – but are perhaps too infrequent to embed fully in to the fabric of the film. Meanwhile the final frames veer a little close into visual cliché with an ending that tips a little too far into the outwardly supernatural. Julia’s journey is one of nihilism having transformed into a quest for meaning: despite a slightly wobbly dismount, Rodeo’s final image speaks to both of these impulses.