Julia (an astounding Julie Ledru) has no interest in half-measures. Her dirt bike gets stolen? Time to steal someone else’s. She needs gas for that new bike? Take it off the first dude who looks her way. She wants some quick cash? Smash and grab a truckload of fancy bikes and literally just ride away with her new fortune. Nothing is out of the reach of her sticky fingers, but even lone wolf Julia hungers for companionship, and in Lola Quivoron’s visceral “Rodeo,” she gets it — at a price.
“Rodeo” is a heart-pounding, wholly unique ride, punctuated by incredible stunt work from Ledru and the rest of the cast — shepherded by veteran stunt expert Mathieu Lardot, who has worked on everything from the Jason Bourne franchise to the “Mission: Impossible” films — and possessed by a kinetic, high-energy drive. Some crafty Hollywood executive will likely pitch an Americanized version as one part “Titane,” one part “Fast and Furious,” and one part “Girlhood,” but Quivoron’s feature debut is so singular, so thrilling, that it will hopefully escape without being sucked into the remake machine.
Being solo on the underground bike circuit is a dangerous thing, Julia is told, but the young Frenchwoman is so feral, so explosive, so totally focused on riding, that it initially appears she’s simply got no room for anyone else. Biking is all she has, but when she meets a group of fellow riders — all men — at a local rodeo (a clandestine biking event from which the film takes its title), they don’t all instantly bond over their shared obsession. Two of them show kindness, the rest reject her out of hand, but when a terrible accident tosses the volatile group together, Julia is granted fragile entry into a world that might be uniquely suited to her manner-less charms.
Julia (or, as she prefers to be called inside the crew, “Unknown”) has the kind of swagger typically associated with male protagonists, a fascinating distinction that Quivoron and Ledru continually interrogate. While Julia might have all the gusto and “balls” of a man (a favorite saying is to tell the dudes to “stop busting my balls!”), she’s still a woman in the eyes of the crew (known as the B-Mores), and that puts on her tenuous ground. But Julia’s tenacity, and her ability to obscure it by playing the wide-eyed waif when necessary, can’t be waylaid. As she inspires the crew to undertake increasingly wild stunts (including plenty of nutty bike heists), she starts to come into a power even her meanest critics can’t undercut.
The B-Mores aren’t just pals and fellow riders; they’re also small-scale criminals, boosting bikes from easy marks, fixing them up, and selling them off at a premium. Their leader, Domino, might be in jail for a variety of crimes, but he’s still able to rule the group from the clink, constantly putting together deals and making demands. Julia is eager to do his bidding, from putting together wild heists (including the heart-stopping boost that frames the film’s final moments) to picking up his groceries. She wants in, even if she can’t quite understand what that means or requires, which will eventually prove to be her undoing.
Despite all her bristle and bluster, there’s a tenderness in Julia — first-time actor Ledru mines a staggering range of emotions and motivations to play her — that reveals itself at the most inopportune times. Once, it’s during that first rodeo, when she attempts to patch up a smashed-up B-More (he doesn’t take too kindly to being coddled). But later, Julia’s sensitive heart takes a shine to Domino’s sequestered wife (co-writer Antonia Buresi) and son. And while Quivoron avoids overplaying the criminal underside of the story, there’s a growing sense that no one is getting out of this alive. But does that matter?
Layered beneath the grittiness of both “Rodeo” and Julia, the kind of gal who literally spit-shines her own hair, an intriguing mystical current flows. Is Julia really being visited by a deceased B-More? Is death all that awaits someone with such patent disregard for her own life? And while no one in “Rodeo” seems likely to listen to the classic jams of someone like Neil Young — the film is flush with rap bangers and hip hop hits — it’s hard not to hear Young’s iconic line racing through every minute of “Rodeo”: It’s better to burn out than to fade away, and this is one film that burns very bright indeed.
“Rodeo” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.