The Dardenne brothers—Jean-Pierre and Luc—have situated their admirable body of realist films (including La Promesse and Rosetta) in nondescript neighborhoods in Liège, Belgium, their hometown. Their working- and underclass characters face ethical and psychological dilemmas that cause a great deal of pain but are often redeemed by human connection. In particular, their films usually deal with inter-generational relationships—parents or their surrogates and children—that are fraught with difficulty.
The Dardenne brothers’ most recent film, The Kid with a Bike, is lean and emotionally resonant work that centers on a volatile eleven-year-old, Cyril (Thomas Doret), who lives in a seemingly benign group home after being abandoned by his father. He keeps running away from the home to search for his father and the bicycle his father had bought him—a symbol of his father’s supposed love—but he can’t find either. As it turns out, the deadbeat father has sold the bike and disappeared without leaving a forwarding address.
In one scene, as Cyril flees from his counselors yet again, he ends up in a doctor’s office, where he clings to a woman patient named Samantha (Cécile de France), a childless hairdresser in her thirties. She tells him, as the counselors gradually pry him loose, “You can hold onto me, but not so tight.” This becomes the axiom for the relationship that develops between Samantha and Cyril. She buys back his bike and takes him to live with her on weekends in her flat on a housing estate.
Cyril is no sentimentalized victim. He’s willful, angry, and hard to handle, eventually moving Samantha’s boyfriend to leave her. Even as Cyril grows closer to Samantha, he remains obsessed with finding his father, Guy (Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier). The film, without indulging in any stylistic flashiness, skillfully tracks Cyril constantly on the move, whether riding his bike or running. Eventually, Cyril manages to track down the elusive father, who is now working at a restaurant. There is nothing admirable about him. He is abrupt and distant and offers little explanation for his behavior, except that he is starting his life anew and can’t deal with being responsible for Cyril. His pathetic, monosyllabic rejection profoundly wounds Cyril.
The Dardennes offer little psychological explanation for their characters’ behavior. They set their film in the present, without filling in the histories of the characters. We don’t learn what happened to Cyril’s mother, or what makes Samantha take on Cyril, and stick with him, despite the upset he causes. But the film succeeds in making us believe in the authenticity of Samantha’s behavior, without ever explaining it. She is solid, sympathetic, and emotionally open towards Cyril, but also firm and unwilling to accommodate his uncontrolled behavior.
Cyril is quick-witted and has a tough carapace, but he innocently becomes enmeshed on the estate where Samantha lives with a manipulative older boy, Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a drug dealer who has a car, a PlayStation, and a mini-fridge full of beer and soda. Wes is a user and bad news, plotting a dumb robbery with a willing, vulnerable Cyril (who looks to Wes as a father figure) as the fall guy. When the robbery goes awry, everything suddenly changes for the better: a chastened Cyril begins to behave differently. He ends up living with Samantha permanently, expressing affection for her and reconstructing a family life.
The Dardennes have made their most hopeful film, and the only one they have shot in summer, turning their usual gray atmosphere into a world that may not be beautiful but is filled with sunlight. They have said that the film is a fairy tale, with the father and Wes as hurtful men who destroy Cyril’s “illusions,” while “Samantha appears as a kind of fairy” to offer redemption.
The Kid With A Bike is grounded in an industrial environment where unemployment is high (and immigration, too), but the social world is just background for the Dardennes. The redemptive narrative may have the touch of a fairy tale, but what is central is the emotionally truthful and affecting story about a damaged, rejected boy who finds deliverance through a fortuitous meeting with an unsentimental maternal figure.
Leonard Quart is the coauthor of American Film and Society Since 1945 and a contributing editor at Cineaste.