“You’re on horseback,” the heroic young riders of “Lads & Jockeys” are reminded. “It’s man’s greatest conquest.” While most auds won’t have considered horse racing in such glorified terms, Benjamin Marquet’s docu about trainee jockeys — a must for the equine-inclined, and a candid look at fearful ambition — may frame the sport in a whole new way. Initial exposure will be limited for this 2008 French production, which is just now opening Stateside, but Marquet’s access, intimate portraiture and synthesis of “The Black Stallion” and “The 400 Blows” will keep the film on a fast commercial track following theatrical play.
Strictly observational in its avoidance of interviews, narration or titles, “Lads & Jockeys” is set at a specialized boarding school in the rural Paris suburb of Chantilly, where 14-year-olds begin the apprenticeship that will lead, with luck and hope, to a career in racing. The fact that the boys all have the primary qualification for the job — they’re small — adds poignancy to a story about kids who have limited opportunities elsewhere but have clearly found themselves in the equestrian world. “We lower the tone of her shop,” says one of the kids, having been chased out of a Louis Vuitton store during an eye-opening field trip to Paris; the ghost of Francois Truffaut seems to be floating around the Champs-Elysees.
Also touching are the unavoidable conclusions one draws almost immediately about each boy’s destiny, even as they perform the menial work they’re assigned — which ones have the nerve to survive on horseback, and which ones will be raking out stalls for the foreseeable future. Some of these judgments are based on personality and behavior: Young Steve Le Guern, sweet-faced kid with a shortage of bravado, can’t get his horse to leave the practice gate without pulling back on the reins. The repeated starts he makes, and the chastisements he receives, don’t indicate a big future in the steeplechase.
The recurring footage of the thoroughbreds, as the boys exercise them and get accustomed to riding them, is simply remarkable; as lensed by Sebastien Buchmann, Laurent Chalet and Marquet, the middle-distance tracking shots go literally for miles and must have been shot from a moving vehicle, albeit one controlled so expertly that the viewer is seldom aware of the shooting. Instead, one is absorbed in the galloping drama of a fledgling jockey and the thousand-pound animal under his dubious control. There has been more dramatic racing footage on film (the contests in “Seabiscuit” come to mind, as does the aforementioned “Black Stallion”), but there’s something about the combination of unstable rider, nervous steed and swiftly traveling camera that generates awe here.
Production values are good; the intermittent use of black-and-white archival French racing footage places the role of the boys in a historical context.