Rodeo, Lola Quivoron’s vibrant and impressively funky fiction debut, ambitiously attempts to put a lot of heart into a gang movie that mutates quietly and organically into a heist thriller but doesn’t know quite how to fuse these strands into a satisfying finale. Though it promises all the elements of a cult crossover, and comes tantalizingly close to delivering, the Un Certain Regard title’s destination is most likely the festival circuit, where it will certainly stand out as a very different kind of rites-of-passage movie.
Newcomer Julie Ledru stars as Julia, who lives on and off in social housing with her brother and mother. Julia’s relationship with her mother is fraught and on the brink of collapsing altogether; she has a job, but her attendance is sketchy. The only thing that she is passionate about is motocross, and since it’s a hobby she can’t afford, she poses as a buyer on Craigslist-style websites and hoodwinks the owners into letting her take a test drive.
It is with one such stolen bike on her hands that she enters the underground world of “urban rodeo” -— a balletic form of stunt riding involving motocross and quad bikes, usually of dubious provenance -— where outsiders are suspected and shunned, as Julia finds when she tries to ride with the B-More gang. The riders turn on her until she finds a friendly face in the form of respected elder Abra, but word of an imminent police raid causes chaos, and Abra is seriously injured in the confusion that follows.
Picked up by Kais (Yanis Lafki), Julia is granted cautious admission to the gang’s clubhouse/garage, an illicit chop shop where bikes are resprayed and given new license plates. Not everyone else is so welcoming there, least of all the openly hostile Manel (Junior Correia), but Julia persuades Kais to let her stay in the garage overnight. Her considerable hustling abilities do not go unnoticed, and Kais introduces her to the gang’s shadowy boss, who runs the operation from a prison cell and gives Julia a new name: Stranger.
Julia excels in this new outsider family, taking on day-to-day chores that bring her close to the boss’ outwardly tough but privately vulnerable wife Ophélie (Antonia Buresi) who lives with her bratty pre-teen son Kylian. As part of the team, Julia reveals a plan that she’s been working on for months: to launch a daring raid on a van carrying a whole shipment of bikes — while the vehicle is still in transit.
For a debut, Quivoron’s film is reassuringly confident, getting down and dirty in a world of grease and gas without overly fetishizing it or romanticizing it. Ledru, too, is a surprisingly commanding presence; though her acting style comes from the less-is-more school, which is not so effective in her more emotional scenes with Ophélie (Buresi really does some very good, subtle work here), it does add an extra frisson of ambiguity when it comes to second-guessing Julia’s true loyalties.
The plotting, however, is the film’s Achilles heel, and after laying the groundwork for an exciting petro-punk Rififi, Rodeo takes a left-field turn with an ending that resurrects a confusing subplot and abandons realism altogether to make a wild detour into symbolism that short-circuits all our (high) expectations, leaving an unsatisfying aftertaste. Still, as a calling card, it’s pretty impressive, and proves that Quivoron can work with both the heart and the gut. At the moment, though, just not in the right ratio.