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The Kid With a Bike

By Philip Martin

This article was published May 11, 2012 at 1:50 a.m.

— Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne make films so naturalistic and low-key they might be mistaken for the sort of cinema verite documentaries the brothers made in the 1970s. Spare and unflinching, their movies, like Lorna’s Silence (2009), L’Enfant (2005) and Rosetta (1999), are characterdriven narratives about desperate people living on the margins of society.

They shoot their movies in and around their hometown of Seraing, in the Frenchspeaking part of Belgium, typically with hand-held cameras and available light. They often work with nonprofessional actors. They aren’t sentimentalists, but they believe in hope and obviously empathize with their lower-class characters. Their movies disturb and unsettle — they cast light on uncomfortable truths.

The Kid With a Bike is a lot like some of the Dardennes’ other movies — it unfolds in long, unbroken, loosely rocking shots captured by a restless camera (the Dardennes once again collaborate with their usual cinematographer, Alain Marcoen), and the central role of Cyril is played by the heretofore unknown Thomas Doret, an 11-year-old who’d never acted before and whom the brothers chose in an open casting call. As the film opens, he’s in a state-run orphanage, where his father (Dardenne regular Jeremie Renier) has “temporarily” deposited him.

Cyril, refusing to believe that his father has abandoned him, escapes the institution and returns to his last known address, only to find an empty apartment and social workers intent on recapturing him. He flees, and has a chance encounter with a hairdresser, Samantha (Cecile de France), who is literally moved by the boy. As his keepers move in to apprehend Cyril, he wraps his arms around Samantha, in parody of a Pieta — the traditional depiction of a dying Jesus in the arms of the Virgin.

“You can hold me,” she tells the frightened boy, “but not so tight.”

They pry him away from her, but she can’t let him go. First, she retrieves the boy’s bike, which his father had sold. Then she arranges a meeting between the reluctant father and the scruffy, resilient Cyril — and insists that the man-child tell his son the difficult truth: There’s no place for Cyril in his sad, circumscribed life.

Then she arranges to take the boy on weekends; he rides his bike while she works in her salon. They take meals together and she worries when he seems to be falling in with bad companions. We wonder if he’s playing her; we worry that he will break her heart.

As usual in a Dardenne film, the performances are so perfectly attuned to one another that it hardly seems as though anyone is acting. Cyril is a remarkable character, as rounded and complex a distillation of boyhood as I can ever remember committed to the screen — he’s a creature of instinct, nearly feral, capable of self-deception and pragmatic violence and more given to reacting than thinking things through. He’s vulnerable to anyone who will pay him attention or allow him to play Assassin’s Creed on his Xbox.

And Samantha is one of those good people we sometimes encounter in the world, a genuinely selfless person willing to open herself up to this unknown and furious little ball of hurt. People like that do exist, so the Dardennes acknowledge her.

In the end, The Kid With a Bike is a deeply humane movie that deserves to be compared with one of its obvious inspirations, Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves (which was called The Bicycle Thief when I first became aware of it). Like all of the Dardenne films I’ve seen, it could be argued that it is about the importance of doing the right thing in a secular world, while keeping faith with whatever small still voice tugs at your conscience. They are all moral tales.

The Kid With a Bike

90 Cast: Thomas Doret, Cecile De France, Jeremie Renier Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, violence and brief language Running time: 87 minutes

In French with English subtitles.

MovieStyle, Pages 40 on 05/11/2012

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