In L'Enfant (The Child), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's latest film, two children have a baby. True, the mother is 18 and the father 20, but both appear to have the emotional maturity of 10-year-olds, at best. When Sonia (Déborah François) returns home with her newborn, she discovers her boyfriend, Bruno (Jérémie Renier), has sublet the apartment to strangers. He hasn't visited her once in the nine days she spent in the hospital. When she finally tracks him down, panhandling in the street, he barely looks at his infant son, though he seems happy enough to see her. Sonia barely holds his lapses against him, even when they have to spend the night in a homeless shelter. The filmmakers show them horsing around, Bruno playfully throwing stones at her while baby Jimmy is strapped to her chest, Sonia trying to trip him, and most harrowingly, the two giggling and slapping at each other while driving on a highway with the baby in the backseat.

Right away, it's obvious that baby Jimmy is in trouble. But it's his parents we have to care about to care about this movie, since the Dardennes track their every move with reverent, unadorned detail. Even before Bruno decides to sell his baby on the black market, without consulting Sonia, it's hard to feel much for this rather dense, selfish petty thief. Renier (the son in the directors' La Promesse) gives an unmannered but unriveting performance, although one suspects that's more a result of Bruno's character than Renier's range. Wearing a sporty leather jacket and black leather hat, Renier resembles a blond Belmondo without the charisma. And though François' Sonia is lovely to look at, with her tousled blond hair and cherubic face, her patience with Bruno (up until he sells Jimmy) is wearing.

The "Director's Statement" in the production notes call this a love story, but if any love is shown, it's Bruno's loyalty toward Steve (Jérémie Segard), his 14-year-old partner in crime. When Bruno is forced to buy Jimmy back, because Sonia faints at learning the news and winds up in the hospital ranting about his treachery, he's forced to come up with weekly payments for the violently disappointed baby-traffickers. He convinces Steve to join him in a motor-scooter bag-snatching scheme, and when that goes awry and the two find themselves being chased, they hide in the freezing river. Bruno manages to save Steve from drowning and leaves him sheltered near the riverbank to retrieve the stolen money and the scooter. Steve, being sharper than the other characters, fears Bruno will abandon him. But the film has established a real relationship between Bruno and Steve, though they share little screen time, and despite Bruno's poor track record, here one believes him. Perhaps it has something to do with Segard's urgent, urchin face and his compelling performance. It's as if he dropped in from a Truffaut film or a Dickens novel. When Bruno finally turns himself in, it's to save Steve, who was found by the police while Bruno was freeing the scooter from debris. In the final scene, Bruno approaches someone in the prisoners' visiting room...Steve? No, Sonia. And soon they are reaching over the table at each other, crying. Whether you respond to this scene or not depends on whether you buy Bruno's transformation. This viewer thought of Sonia's earlier retort to an apologetic Bruno, "You're lying. You can't help yourself."

Set in the bleak industrial town of Seraing, Belgium, the film avoids any theatrical touches: The lighting is natural, there is no background music, dialogue is minimal and, except for the chase scene, there's hardly any action. This is all in keeping with the Dardennes' cinematic approach. They started out as documentary filmmakers and their narrative films hew closely to a minimalist reality. L'Enfant is their second film to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes (the first was Rosetta in 1999), and their admirers value their slow-paced, small-scale social realism. There is an undeniable integrity to their approach: the handheld camerawork, attention to the sounds of everyday life (here, jarring cell-phone rings are particularly striking), use of real time.

But in L'Enfant, the Dardennes fail to breathe life into the central characters, especially Bruno. While eschewing a psychological context can be an effective storytelling device, here it just contributes to a pervasive dullness.

-Wendy R. Weinstein