Julie Ledru in Lola Quivoron's Rodeo; courtesy of Music Box Films

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In his 1967 book Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “The highways are crowded with people who drive as if their sole purpose in getting behind the wheel is to avenge every wrong done them by man, beast or fate.” Although it was written more than 50 years ago, Thompson might as well have been talking about the motocross-obsessed kids in the French drama Rodeo. Their allegiances are looser than a classic motorcycle gang, and yet there is a defiance to their riding, as if their dangerous stunts are a way to affirm their identity. Co-writer and director Lola Quivoron complicates this sense of vengeance with a tortured protagonist, one whose obscured desire is ultimately a source of frustration, not intrigue.

When we meet Julia (Julie Ledru), Quivoron films her in a frenzy of activity. She runs from a grubby apartment complex into the parking lot, begging for a ride, and is met with uniform hostility. At first, the hostility suggests Julia asks her friends for too many favors, but subtext suggests she is the only young woman fighting to be part of a subculture full of young men. She gets what she wants, albeit by the skin of her teeth, and we see why she needs a ride: She looks for motorcycles for sale online, then tricks the sellers and drives off without paying a cent. This gets her the attention of Kaïs (Yannis Lafki), another thief who runs a chop shop for Domino (Sébastien Schroeder). Julia ingratiates herself with this gang, proving she is a valuable asset, and yet the uneasy alliances mean she is never quite comfortable in this new group.

Rodeo is fascinating when it works as an anthropological study. Domino collects bike enthusiasts like a Dickensian character, and while the overarching goal is to offload stolen gear, there is also a thin community behind the crime. Antonia Buresi plays Ophélie, Domino’s wife, and she is the de facto matriarch who cares for everyone while also barely controlling her toddler. What all the characters share, beyond a sense of desperation, is the hunt for an ephemeral feeling of escape. Ledru twists her face into discomfort for most of the film, except when she is riding a bike, which is the only time her body relaxes. Together with cinematographer Raphaël Vandenbussche, Quivoron uses grainy footage and natural light to find beauty in how the bikers embrace the road.

The tension, one that creates a persistent sense of unease, is how shared interests are not enough for anyone to trust each other. Bikes get stolen haphazardly, and Julia in particular feels that some of Domino’s lackeys are out to get her. Indeed, they assault her throughout the film, creating a persistent feeling that any scene might end with violence. Although we get some sense of the group dynamics, Quivoron has less interest in what motivates them as individuals. Julia is someone who is so beaten down, and so consistently disappointed, that raw instinct motivates her more than anything else. The screenplay, co-written by Quivoron and Buresi, resists going deeper. There is a subplot where Julia ingratiates herself again, this time with Ophélie and her kid, and yet there are few answers when these people drop their defenses even a little. Fractured and incomplete, little in Rodeo builds to any larger point.

In between the underdeveloped character moments, Rodeo develops into a low-key thriller. Julia can turn on the charm when she’s talking her way into stealing a bike, and we are unsure whether she can get away in time. This all culminates in a heist, something that’s almost out of a Mad Max movie, one where glory matters more than loot. Still, Quivoron undermines opportunities for suspense because Julia and the others seemingly act with impunity. The film never shows the cops who stop their stunt driving, and once a bike is successfully stolen, the hapless owners are immediately out of the picture. Thompson’s Hells Angels is acutely aware of how the gang interacts with the public and community, while in comparison the gang in Rodeo is hermetically sealed.

All the indecision and austerity lead to a frustrating conclusion. What ultimately happens to Julia is inexplicable, a kind of symbolic denouement that does not illuminate the character. Instead, the final minutes suggest Quivoron ran out of ideas, or gas. As a feature debut, Quivoron’s film sometimes has unique confidence or energy. Many of her actors are total newcomers, suggesting she might share sensibilities with filmmakers such as Larry Clark, Harmony Korine, or Hector Babenco. But her austere approach, one that avoids traditional character development, ultimately feels more like indecision.

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Rodeo opens at the Angelika Pop-up at Union Market and the Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax on March 24.