Film Review: The Kid with a Bike

Less visceral and tense than the Dardennes’ best work, but a beautifully wrought story of a troubled boy and the stranger who saves him, told with the filmmakers’ customary skill and lack of sentimentality.

The Belgian writing-directing team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is a major force in current European cinema, responsible for some of the strongest films to emerge from the continent in the last two decades. Alas, the wildly talented brothers are barely known this side of the Atlantic, underappreciated even among foreign-movie buffs who prefer their flashier contemporaries Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke.

The Dardennes’ latest neorealist parable, The Kid with a Bike (winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last May), is unlikely to bring them closer to stateside glory, though it’s a lovely addition to their already impressive body of work. If it lacks the slow-burning tension and cathartic power of their best movies (Rosetta, The Son and The Child), The Kid with a Bike is a beautifully wrought film in its own right—and one that examines the brothers’ career-spanning themes of grace and redemption amid grim socioeconomic conditions with renewed purpose and more hope than they’ve ever allowed.

That is not to say that the world the movie depicts is particularly rosy. The Kid with a Bike revolves around Cyril (Thomas Doret), an 11-year-old who has been dealt a tough hand: Abandoned by his father (Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier), unhappy at the children’s center where he sleeps, he spends his time riding around his working-class neighborhood on a bicycle, his sole treasured possession.

One day, Cyril—who, like most Dardenne protagonists, is in almost constant motion—scampers away from the center and literally runs into Samantha (Cécile de France), a thirty-something hairdresser whom he convinces to host him on weekends. Their evolving relationship anchors the film, with the levelheaded part-time foster mother protecting the boy from various threats, both physical and psychological, that pop out around him like monsters in a haunted house: a local thug who recruits Cyril for a robbery; the callous father who rejects his son’s barely veiled pleas for love; other kids who steal Cyril’s bike, the only thing that gives him a sense of security and a small taste of freedom (an idea the directors convey in a gorgeous tracking shot near the end of the film).

The Kid with a Bike is a gritty fairytale about how an unhappy, unruly boy starts to find peace and the outlines of a moral compass thanks to the kindness of a stranger. It is, without a doubt, the Dardennes’ gentlest, most optimistic movie to date—as reflected in the comparatively fluid camerawork (they usually rely on rougher handheld shots), the many summery, light-filled images (their Belgian locations are more often bleak and grey-skied), and the recurring use of music (a few bars of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto), a rarity for the filmmakers.

Those who fear the Dardennes have gone soft can rest assured: Their typically economical storytelling, pared-down visual approach, and general aversion to clichés (they spare us the hostility-to-affection arc that lesser filmmakers might have imposed on the bond between Cyril and Samantha) keep The Kid with a Bike safely away from sentimentality.

The Dardennes’ fine direction of actors is also on full display. Doret, in his big-screen debut, is a real find, his high-pitched prepubescent voice and angelic face masking the scrappy survival instinct that is the hallmark of the Dardenne protagonist. Cécile de France, a star in France, is possibly the biggest name the brothers have ever cast, and with her tanned, toned arms and perfectly tousled blonde hair, she’s their most luscious screen object yet. But the Dardennes strip the actress of her usual tomboyish vivacity, allowing it to peek out only occasionally from a melancholy that feels new for de France—and that the film wisely never explains. We don’t learn much about Samantha, but a quietly powerful scene in which she unblinkingly responds to her boyfriend’s ultimatum that she choose between him and Cyril tells us everything we need to know.

There has always been a programmatic quality to the Dardennes’ stories, and an obviousness to their strong religious undertones. Yet the brothers tell those stories with such fierce integrity and astonishing, unforced skill that the movies stay with you, blossoming upon repeated viewings. Unfairly pegged as masters of misery obsessed with the underclass—petty thieves, sullen individualists, con artists and the desperate immigrants they exploit—of one of Europe’s least postcard-friendly corners, they are, in fact, the least condescending of socially conscious filmmakers; their main characters may be beleaguered, impoverished and frequently off-putting, but the Dardennes also endow them with inner lives and spiritual resilience. The biggest struggle of all, their films suggest, is not making ends meet, but finding meaning in a hard life and mustering compassion when the world seems devoid of it.

The Dardennes are indeed usually interested in the awakening of souls that have been trampled or stunted by unthinkably rough circumstances. The Kid with a Bike feels new in that it portrays people with souls intact, or in formation, saving one another from the loneliness and despair that always haunt the brothers’ movies, ready to engulf nearly everybody who populates them. It may not be their best film, but it is perhaps the purest expression of their humanism, and as such it is something to be cherished.