In the films of Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the characters move restlessly within fences and walls both real and imagined, often bumping hard against the limits that confine them. They are creatures of need, lonely and deeply vulnerable, but with an almost-feral determination to survive and hold on to the minimal things that constitute their lives. Where other filmmakers draw the parameters of their world through establishing shots, the Dardennes merely follow their heroes—over the shoulder, with a handheld camera—as they find the borders on foot.
Perhaps their most austere film, 1999’s Palme D’Or-winning Rosetta, tracks the feisty eponymous 17-year-old from a trailer park, where she lives with her alcoholic mother, to a food truck in the industrial wasteland of Seraing, Belgium. She makes less than the minimum wage, if she’s lucky enough to work at all. And it’s not just where she moves, but how: She paces, she runs, she begs, she howls, fighting every day to get what she needs, and rattling the bars like a caged animal. Dramas about the underclass are often about characters’ efforts to transcend their circumstances, but in Rosetta, living hand-to-mouth is about the next payday, the next meal, the next rent check.
After the 2008 thriller Lorna’s Silence, the brothers’ underappreciated foray into Liège’s criminal underworld, they return to Seraing with their beautiful new movie. The Kid With A Bike feels like a companion piece to Rosetta, though it’s far less severe and more open-hearted, even borderline sentimental. Like Rosetta, 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) is defined most by raw determination and a scrapper’s mentality: In the first scene, he bites the arm of a well-meaning counselor at the group home and dashes out of the building, all in a vain attempt to locate the father who abandoned him. But unlike Rosetta, who’s been forced to grow up too soon, he’s still just a child, and not yet chastened by the world’s hard lessons. He’s open, innocent, and naïve, just like any other kid his age, and he doesn’t know how to snuff out a bad situation.
Though the title nods to the Italian neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves—and Cyril, much like the father and son in that movie, spends much of his time tracking down the oft-stolen possession—The Kid With A Bike isn’t about the bike as something essential to his livelihood, but as his sole connection to the freedom and play of childhood itself. When Cyril goes searching for his deadbeat father, he’s also looking for his bike, and he’s devastated to discover his dad sold it off to make ends meet. By happy accident, Cyril runs into Samantha (Cécile de France), a single hairdresser who takes him under her wing—first to help him find his missing bike and father, and later, on weekends away from the group home.
In what may be a self-referential choice, the Dardennes gave the role of Cyril's dad to Jérémie Renier, who played the hustler who sells his newborn child to black marketers in their 2005 masterpiece L’Enfant. If anything, Renier is less sympathetic here, because his character dismisses Cyril as a problem he simply doesn’t have the means to address. It’s a small grace on Samantha's part that she forces him to tell Cyril he doesn’t want to see him, rather than keep stringing him along with empty promises about the future they have together. But Samantha’s maternal affections aren’t enough for Cyril, whose continued search for a father figure has disastrous consequences.
The second half of The Kid With A Bike diverges so much from the first that they seem like two different movies—the first a drama about an orphan’s search for home, the second a moral thriller about the terrible things all people, no matter their social station, are willing to do in the interest of self-preservation. Both sections are riveting in their own way, and punctuated by startling shocks and bursts of emotion. The Dardennes are studiously unsentimental by nature—The Kid With A Bike is a weepie by their standards and no others’—but Cyril and Samantha are fundamentally open-hearted people, in spite of his blinkered willfulness and her pragmatic attempts to bring stability to his life. Their feelings come out in sharp, wrenching stabs. (The Dardennes’ decision to ladle a drippy score over a few brief transitional sequences is an uncharacteristic misstep.)
There’s a sweetness to Cyril and Samantha’s relationship that’s unlike anything in the Dardennes’ oeuvre; one sequence is so glossily idyllic that it seems imported from another, happier planet. Yet part of the strength of The Kid With A Bike is how sobering it can be about what even the most generous, well-meaning adult like de France can do for someone like Cyril. Just as surely as a parent’s love imprints a child at a very young age, abandonment can be just as firmly hard-wired and resistant to all but the most steady, dedicated shows of trust and affection. The Dardennes are not so cynical as to consider Cyril a lost cause, but they harbor no illusions about the treacherous, hard-won steps toward a normal life.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit The Kid With A Bike's Spoiler Space.