The Kid with a Bike

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<i>The Kid with a Bike</i>

The Kid with a Bike continues the Belgian writing-directing brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s extraordinary run of charting the lives of European down-and-outers navigating difficult moral and spiritual terrain. That time and again they’ve managed to do so incisively, yet with an emotionally detached tone, speaks to their ability to elicit complex audience reactions with a sure, minimalist style. The Kid with a Bike is no exception.

The Dardennes’ latest follows 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) as he struggles to reconcile with the fact that his father, Guy (Jérémie Renier), has abandoned him. In shock and denial, Cyril, with the aid of Samantha (Cécile de France), a neighborhood hairdresser, tracks down his bicycle, which Guy had secretly sold for much-needed cash before his departure. The two also locate Guy himself, leading to a wrenching reunion that ends with the father literally shutting the door in his son’s face.

Samantha’s show of concern draws Cyril to her, and she welcomes him into her home as her foster son. Full of confusion and self-loathing after his father’s rejection, Cyril is prone to disobedience, defying Samantha’s efforts to create a sense of structure and belonging for the boy. Cyril’s inevitable mix-up with a local hood, Wes (Egon Di Mateo), initiates a downward spiral into crime and retaliation that threatens any prospect for better days ahead for the wounded Cyril and the devoted Samantha.

As with all of the Dardennes’ films, the above events proceed naturally as a chain of causes and effects. Theirs is a cinema of keenly observed sociology, always interested in man’s capacity to prevail despite terrible socioeconomic odds and psychological trauma. Cyril’s circumstances are dire to begin with, and they only get shakier as his story unfolds. But always the Dardennes leave open the possibility that, given the chance, Cyril (and humanity by extension) will always tend towards love and companionship and, therefore, back towards Samantha, his savior.

As effective as the film is, The Kid with a Bike suffers somewhat from its spare formalism. The filmmakers go out of their way not to attribute psychological motivation to their characters’ actions. In most cases, that approach works: Cyril, Wes and even Samantha are accessible because they demonstrate human emotions and instincts—shame, survival, nurturing—that sympathetic viewers can readily relate to without explanation.

But lack of character insight creates a major gap in the presentation of Guy, the father. Nowhere in the film do the Dardennes offer a legitimate sense of why Guy rejects his son. There’s no discernible pain or anguish on his part, and no one questions whether Guy feels any shame over his actions—even when an ideal opportunity for Samantha to do so presents itself. Guy’s excuse that he wants a fresh start in life feels wanting and inadequate given the Dardennes’ shrewdness with character development.

As portrait of a young boy’s resilience and of compassion shown by one human being towards another, The Kid with a Bike is part of the grand tradition of humanist realism. Watching the Dardennes’ cinema, one can’t help but be reminded of luminous predecessors like The 400 Blows and Bicycle Thieves, movies featuring marginalized children forced to endure hostile environments. But, more than any other filmmaker, their work bears the strongest resemblance to that of the late master Robert Bresson. With their powerful moral undercurrents, minimalist acting and ascetic style, Bresson’s films (Mouchette would make an excellent companion piece to The Kid with a Bike) weren’t concerned so much with stories and characters as with the ideas they helped to illuminate—namely the continual war between man’s baser and higher instincts, between the evils of mistrust and crime, and the virtues of charity, compassion and love. The Kid with a Bike is a beautifully executed variation on those themes.

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Writer: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Starring: Cécile de France, Thomas Doret, Jérémie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione, Egon Di Mateo, Olivier Gourmet
Release Date: Mar. 16, 2012