It takes only a glance at Julie Ledru, the star of “Rodeo,” to convince you to go for the ride of Lola Quivoron’s ferocious feature debut, set in the world of motorcyclists in the French suburbs and feeling as if you’re on a Ducati for its duration. Ledru, who goes by Julie to her family in the film and “unknown” to those she meets along the way, is one of those arresting discoveries as a screen presence, appearing world-weary well beyond years with a gap-toothed grin on the rare occasions she’s happy and a fierce determination that makes you wonder why she isn’t running the world yet. She can’t be tamed by any person in the early moments of the drama, despite the attempts by others in her building to stop her as she tries to leave, with her brother eventually telling her that if their mom sees her again she’ll call the cops. The reasons are left vague as to why she’s stomping out, but it seems like she’s an ill fit anywhere except a motorcycle, somewhat unfortunately making a gang of fellow local enthusiasts her only reasonable home.
When she introduces herself as anonymous, no one in the all-male crew is curious enough to learn her actual name, but they do take an interest in her when she sticks around to help tend to two of their own who injure themselves in running from the cops. The matronly act fits into certain ideas the men surely have of her yet she is capable of far more than they could imagine, a fact that ends up becoming even more useful to them and their prison-bound boss Domino (Sebastien Schroeder) when she takes advantage of men who underestimate her with a savvy scheme, preying on the wealthy who put their lightly used bikes on Craigslist and never see them again after she comes by for a test drive.
Quivoron keeps the film intensely within Julie’s experience, drawing on tactile camerawork that lavishes attention on small moments of how things feel and each scene has the energy of its lead, whether restless and rambunctious or silent and still. However, “Rodeo” positions a parallel to Julie in Ophelie (Antonia Buresi, who happens to be the film’s co-writer), the long-suffering partner of Domino who takes care of their young son while he remains in the pen. The crime boss’ grip is such that although Julie and Ophelie handle the responsibility of sneaking him supplies while he’s in prison, only able to reach as far as a contraband cell phone he has, they still have him to answer to, even if they obviously exceed his physical grasp. Throughout the film, the invisible barriers to the women’s lives become clear even when there’s nothing but open road in front of them and after Julie is attacked by a masked man, the film shrewdly flips a genre trope in suggesting it could be anyone after she’s alienated so many to indicting everyone when it becomes understood that the threat is everywhere. Between Ledru and Quivoron, the talent on display in “Rodeo” may be unique, but the two make sure to make the point that their heroine is hardly alone.