‘The Kid with a Bike’ Marks Another Home Run by the Dardenne Brothers

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Rating: 4.5/5.0

CHICAGO – The sullen little boy is always on the run. His red shirt and jacket cause him to resemble a crimson blur against the green and gray landscape of his Belgian town. He believes that there must be an explanation for why his absent father has left him in a state-run youth farm, and is determined to track him down. Consumed with confusion and rage, the boy has no choice but to keep moving toward a destination that may not exist.
This may sound like a hopelessly depressing premise, but in the hands of celebrated auteurs Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, it emerges as a riveting, immensely powerful meditation on the need for human connection. It’s also incredibly tense for a quietly nuanced drama, and viewers may find themselves spending much of the film holding their collective breaths with the hope that no harm will come to the pint-sized yet stubbornly resourceful protagonist. This picture has more genuine suspense than most Hollywood thrillers.
In a way, “The Kid with a Bike” is a fitting follow-up to the Dardenne’s last feature, “Lorna’s Silence,” which centered on poor Albanian emigrants seeking a permanent residence status in Belgium. In an act of desperation, they ended up cooperating with an ill-advised scheme hatched by gang members. In my 2010 review of the film’s DVD release, I wrote that “watching a Dardenne film is like unravelling a mystery,” and the same statement could be applied to their latest effort. The filmmakers’ background as documentarians can clearly be noted in their refusal to use narration, music or any self-conscious storytelling constructs. The camera simply observes its subjects as it would in the classical style of cinéma vérité, allowing the story to develop as if it was organically unfolding before the audience’s eyes. Even in the most turbulent of circumstances, the characters in “Kid With a Bike” never feel compelled to spill out their life stories to each other. It’s a tricky task for screenwriters to make any expository monologue sound naturalistic, and the Dardennes have confessed in interviews that they have no interest in bringing clarity to psychological motivations. Weak performances would sink this sort of approach in a heartbeat, but the Dardennes have already proven to be among the most gifted filmmakers in world cinema when it comes to the art of directing actors, particularly those with little to no experience. Young cinema masters such as Ramin Bahrani and Céline Sciamma are indebted to the Dardenne’s innovative technique.

Thomas Doret and Cécile de France star in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Kid with a Bike.
Thomas Doret and Cécile de France star in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Kid with a Bike.
Photo credit: Christine Plenus/A Sundance Selects release

As the titular kid, Cyril, 13-year-old Thomas Doret delivers a film debut that must be seen to be believed. Like the best child actors currently popping up in mainstream American fare (namely Asa Butterfield and Kodi Smit-McPhee), Doret never appears to be forcing an emotion for the camera. The wounded expression that often appears frozen on Cyril’s face is never sentimentalized or self-pitying. Life’s bitter indifference has forced him to become too self-sufficient to waste time sulking in the shadows. Cyril’s quest for his father is spawned not by starry-eyed fantasies but by the sheer disbelief that he could be so thoughtlessly discarded. When an adult warns him that a reunion may not provide him with all that he had dreamed, Cryil replies, “I’m not dreaming.” Once the boy acquires his prized bicycle, Alain Marcoen’s fluid lens captures the exhilaration of unlimited motion as Cyril discovers the ideal vehicle with which to channel his restlessness. Like Lorna, Cyril is vulnerable to the manipulative desires of predators, and it’s not long before he crosses paths with a gang leader (Egon Di Mateo) intent on recruiting young boys to carry out his crimes. Di Mateo is very effective at taking on the faux role of a brother figure, tempting alienated children with PlayStation games while offering them the illusion of a new home.

Cyril inspires such visceral empathy from the audience that no explanation is needed for why a childless hairdresser, Samantha (beautifully played by Cécile De France) would want to adopt him. She first meets him as he’s running away from the youth farm. He nearly tackles her to the ground as he clings to her for dear life. Samantha allows him to hold her but asks for him not to hold too tightly. This woman is clearly no pushover, and respects Cyril as a budding young man. When she finally meets Cyril’s father (Jérémie Renier), her blood pressure reaches its boiling point. Renier has often been cast by the Dardennes as despicable wretches, and this one may be the worst of all. He’s the sort of deadbeat who walks out on his son and doesn’t expect him to follow. When the cruel truth is finally comprehended by Cyril, he starts clawing his face and banging his head into Samantha’s car window. She places the boy forcibly at her side, halting him from mutilating himself any further, and their struggle soon devolves into a deep embrace, as Cyril lets loose his pent-up tears. This is one of various moments in the picture where the Dardennes make the startling decision to utilize music that doesn’t emanate from a pure source. The snippet of Beethoven’s “Adagio un poco mosso” is so sublimely married with the imagery that it succeeds as yet another enduring reminder that great art truly can have eternal life.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, directors of The Kid with a Bike.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, directors of The Kid with a Bike.
Photo credit: Christine Plenus/A Sundance Selects release

With all that being said, the film is not without its frustrating moments. Whenever the kid or the bike is carelessly left unattended, the audience automatically starts counting down to certain disaster. Thankfully, the Dardennes subvert expectations every step of the way. Viewers may easily sense when danger is close, but unsure of precisely where it will arrive and how. The startling final sequence may strike some as being too abrupt, but it actually makes perfect sense once viewers have the chance to think back through the rest of the picture. A standard cookie-cutter ending would’ve brought the film to a pleasant but unsatisfying conclusion. Banal pleasantries will never be allowed in a Dardenne picture, and for that we should be exceedingly grateful.

‘The Kid with a Bike’ stars Thomas Doret, Cécile De France, Jérémie Renier, Laurent Caron, Fabrizio Rongione, Egon Di Mateo and Olivier Gourmet. It was written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. It was released March 23rd at the Music Box Theatre. It is not rated.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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