Rating: 4/5Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have carved out a niche in cinema, their signature on a film instantly recognizable. Much like the working class characters who populate Mike Leigh’s movies, the Dardennes fill their movies with people many of us wouldn’t think twice about in our daily lives. From the drug-addled young parents in The Child to the boy looking for a second chance in The Boy, the Belgian filmmaking duo brings our attention to the pain and hardship suffered by common people. While the characters in a Leigh film can be shrill, the Dardennes frame their studies in quiet, meticulous anticipation. This doesn’t mean there won’t be dramatic fireworks, but the Dardenne brothers are masters of restraint. Their latest film, The Kid with a Bike, not only shares a similarly ambiguous title with the other films that preceded it, but the same sort of spiritual calamity.
Like most other Dardenne films, The Kid with a Bike begins in medias res as 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) holds a telephone in an orphanage office, desperately trying to get a hold of his father. A counselor tries to talk the boy down, but Cyril is having none of it. His father couldn’t have moved away without him, his bicycle was still in the apartment! Unwilling to believe the line has been disconnected and that his father has left him, Cyril stages an escape from the orphanage to uncover the truth. Before he is re-apprehended, Cyril meets hairdresser Samantha (Cécile De France) who not only recovers his lost bike, but agrees to care for him on the weekends.
Cyril is a constant flutter of angry motion and soon that bicycle becomes synonymous with his missing father, the boy grasping onto the handlebars as if they are his last shred of hope. Like The Bicycle Thieves, we are constantly waiting for someone to steal the bike, especially when Cyril leaves it unattended for moments at a time. Soon enough, Samantha helps Cyril to find his father, a reprobate played by Jérémie Renier (of The Child), who informs the boy he no longer wants to see him. Cyril must then decide to accept the truth or let it tear him apart. Under the guidance of Samantha, shot with the grace of an angel by the Dardennes, Cyril begins to work his way through his grief, but one poor decision threatens to ruin this new idyll.
Without a father, Cyril is vulnerable to the dangers of the world and they soon come calling in the form of a local dealer (Egon Di Mateo) who seduces the boy with videogames and his wolfish friendship. The Dardennes establish a dichotomy between the tough love of Samantha and the dealer’s guile, and Cyril quickly slips from her grasp. It is a dark fall for Cyril, but the Dardennes have one more trick up their sleeve. Much like the shadowy, painful heart of The Boy, the Dardennes have one eye on redemption in The Kid with a Bike. But unlike American directors handed the same subject matter, the Dardennes stay away from saccharine resolution and pat lesson-teaching. Cyril must fall a long way before he has any hope of moving on, something he may just not survive.
Like the best of any Dardenne film, The Kid with a Bike makes us care for its ragtag protagonists, no matter how unlikable and downtrodden they may be. Filmed with a summer spaciousness, The Kid with a Bike certainly does not look like the brittle coldness of The Child, but that chilly abandonment is still there. But looks may be deceiving and while the Dardennes leave us on a hopeful note, dangers still abound. For a film that is as heartbreaking and real as The Kid with a Bike, the Dardennes do not strike one false note. They are modern masters of both realism and redemption.