While watching the opening images of the Dardenne Brothers’ latest film, The Kid with a Bike, there’s no mistaking the reverence to their cinematic ancestors; the images of a child running confusedly in a world he cannot understand are instantly reminiscent of the chilling final shot of Antoine’s desperate plea to the audience in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, while the central device of this film, a bike, feels like a sure nod to Vittorio De Sica’s masterful Bicycle Thieves.
Cyril (Thomas Doret) is an 11 year-old boy who has been left in a children’s home by his father for what he believes will be only a temporary period of time. When his father moves out of their apartment, and more disturbingly to Cyril, sells his prized bike, he sets out on a quest to find him, for he cannot believe his father would leave without saying a word. After a chance run-in with kind hairdresser Samantha (Cécile de France), who returns his bike to him, the two set about contacting Cyril’s father and getting to the bottom of this, while she agrees to let Cyril stay with her at weekends.
While the notion of a bike representing childhood and everything that entails isn’t particularly clever or original, the devastating purpose it serves here, told in an arresting manner, certainly is. The tale’s upsetting truth discovered early on, that Cyril’s bike has been sold by his downtrodden father, has the youngster not only wrestling with the sad truth of it, but also fighting for a childhood which just about everyone around him – his father, the aggressive kids on the housing estate, and anyone except Samantha – seems to want to deny him.
Though rarely changing its shape as a touching meditation on lost innocence, the film briefly becomes a quaint and compelling detective story, as Cyril and Samantha chase clues while looking for his father, and when they come across him, to scratch on the surface and find out why he took off so suddenly without a quick visit or even a phone call. All while this is occurring, a gentle familial bond develops between Samantha and her occasional tenant, though thankfully never one which seems even remotely forced or contrived.
The dynamic between them is interesting in as much as it is not the typical and expected story of a surrogate mother taking care of a deprived young boy; Samantha, played immaculately by De France, refuses to placate Cyril’s tantrums or his neurosis. It makes her a firm authoritarian though creates problems early on when they do meet Cyril’s father, and unsurprisingly, his lack of interest in his son proves disappointing. Cyril’s regard to Samantha, meanwhile, is a lot more simple, and as a child, aptly so; Cyril recognises her as a potential mother though disapproves of her having relationships with other men, for, of course, he already has a father – despite his absenteeism – and doesn’t need another. The question becomes whether she will want to accept this role thrust before her, and give Cyril the childhood that a routine of children’s homes cannot adequately provide.
Later, Cyril chances across an older boy from the estate who he appears to regard as a brother figure of sorts, being invited to his house to play video games, and enhancing the allegory, the boy fixes his bike for him. However, he also shows to be a let-down, tempting Cyril into petty crime, and such is the film’s firm rejection of any sort of standard familial dynamic. There are no grand emotional gestures or moments as the climax abounds, but what we see on-screen is nevertheless a small measure of progress, a satisfyingly understated payoff for a tough kid who, by way of small actions, becomes a potent testament to the human spirit’s adaptability and sturdiness.
There’s a sweetly lyrical poetry to the Dardennes’ visual style, though never one which betrays its naturalistic, even impressionistic aspirations, but the film’s real success is the outstanding turn from Doret, whose debut is an astonishingly authentic one and echoes the lineage of wonderful child turns in French films decades prior. His worn face and intense expressions wear the story’s anguish, and the distressing physical tantrums in which he lashes out are genuinely chilling. The Dardennes’ depiction of a courageous fight for childhood boasts one of the best child performances in some time, from impressive newcomer Thomas Doret.
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This article was first posted on May 20, 2011