First there was Bicycle Thieves; then Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Messenger, Beijing Bicycle and Stray Dogs; and now there is a new kid on the block seeking – and earning – its initiation into the exclusive fraternity of films about stolen bicycles. Bikes and their theft are key to Trevor Stevens’ feature debut Rock Steady Row – although it is the only film in this canon to be set both in a dystopian future and on a college campus.
Rock Steady University is a private wasteland of high-fees exploitation, severe underfunding and occasional education, where the sororities, if they still exist, have gone into hiding, and where those students who do not join one of the two remaining fraternities risk starvation, brutalisation and death. As the voiceover at the beginning puts it, “At Rock Steady University, only the strong graduate, let alone survive.” This is essentially American academe viewed through the post-apocalyptic prism of The Road Warrior, except that the resource in demand here is not gasoline, but the pushbike – the safest and most convenient way of traversing the mean streets of the campus and running the gauntlet of its contested central strip, The Row.
Into this heady environment wanders a stranger from “out of town”, the freshman Leroy (Heston Horwin), who has only just arrived with his custom-built two-wheeler when it is openly stolen by Andrew Palmer (Logan Huffman), the harmonica-playing head of Kappa ‘Brutus’ Omega. Leroy can look after himself in a scuffle, especially when armed with the appropriate mixtape on his Walkman – but he also quickly learns from his new journalist roommate Piper (Diamond White) that the jocks of the Kappa House and the spectacle-sporting intellectuals of the rival High Society fraternity are both key parts of an underground bike ring run with the connivance of the Dean (Larry Miller). So, outnumbered and caught in the middle of an endless inter-fraternal struggle for the lucrative stolen bicycle market, Leroy decides to go all Yojimbo on both houses, pitting them against one another like the ambivalent hero of any number of Kurosawa-inspired spaghetti westerns. He is on a mission to retrieve his bike at any cost, and to be the last man standing – but along the way, he might just become the saviour of a community in the thrall of misogynistic bros and their profiteering networks.
On the one hand, Rock Steady Row is a sly, often very funny satire of America’s broken education system, and more generally of the nation’s bondage to a power-brokering cadre of douche-y, self-serving fratboys. Even the Kappas’ reds and the Society’s blues correspond to the codified colours of the country’s Republican and Democratic parties. On the other hand, like Rian Johnson’s Brick or François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissellset’s Turbo Kid, it constructs a wonderfully artificial retro world furnished entirely with the tropes of pure genre, and graffitied with the titles of Stevens’ previous short films (The Dream, Glazed And Confused, Beast, Mr Bananas, Run, Growing Pains). In this stylised, fantasy arena where ideologies come out to play (and fight), and a pencil truly can be mightier than a sword, it is worth remembering the Dean’s words: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
Rock Steady Row was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2018.