Half-formed expressions of disappointment, hope, struggle, confusion, and boyish playfulness on faces otherwise marked by youth’s inexperience, and a self-consciousness brought on by the curiosity of being filmed, constitute the most memorable moments of Lads & Jockeys, a documentary on 14-year-old aspiring jockeys in France. And by linking these moving stills of young jockeys’ lives—the harshness of their routine, waking up at five a.m. to muck the stall, and the seemingly impossible task of taming a large and strong horse—to old black-and-white clips of what could be considered a more romanticized version of themselves, director Benjamin Marquet makes his documentary as much about his, and his archival, images as the sentiments audiences bring to them. There’s hardly a story to follow, no stated facts, and little in the way of character development, but that’s because Marquet seeks to burrow into the boys’ perspective for the prize of capturing them on film, like the jockeys in his day were.
Without any opening explanatory text or voiceover, Lads & Jockeys begins as if Marquet were himself a curious boy in a used book store flipping through picture books about jockeys from past and present, amazed by the equestrian motion, the professional glamour of yesteryear’s elites, and the behind-the-scenes-like crudeness of today’s younglings in their learning curve. And just as a child would flip back and forth through a book indiscriminately, so does Marquest with his film; each scene happens without a causation, a technique that may seem random or lazy, but that works in the sense that the overall effect is like the patchy workings of memory—the memories we have of being a child in the process of learning something new and challenging and of the cultural memories of the sport that exist in old newsreel clips.
The kids seem older than their ages; one in particular dresses in suits and carries himself like a grown man, expect that his permanently hung-open mouth makes him seem as if he’s experiencing everything for the first time. Their rugged workday, which, besides the stable chores, also includes regular school, may seem gruesome and outmoded, but they also find the time to enjoy modern-day luxuries as when we see a lad lying on his bed playing his PSP, or when another calls home on his cellphone. When the somewhat mischievous score by the Nature Boys plays over a scene of a couple of smirking boys trotting along on their horses accompanied by an overlapping audio track of a trainer reminding them of the standards and etiquette of racehorse culture, Lads & Jockeys‘s free-floating, awkward tensions between boyhood and the learned mannerisms of manhood come to the fore and encapsulate this nostalgic film nicely.