A journey that goes easy on sentiment
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Mar. 30, 2012
Fans of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian brothers known for such naturalistic dramas as "Rosetta" and "The Child," may approach "The Kid With a Bike" with a certain amount of steely trepidation: These are filmmakers, after all, who have never hesitated to spare viewers an unsentimental, even grim, depiction of kids, with or without bikes.
Leery filmgoers can exhale: "The Kid With a Bike" may hew faithfully to the Dardennes' house style of spare, lucid storytelling. But without giving anything away, let's just say that with this simple, deeply affecting tale, they never set out to break your heart.
Which is not to say they don't come perilously close. As "The Kid With a Bike" opens, a young boy named Cyril (Thomas Doret) is trying desperately to get out of the children's home where he has been staying in order to find his missing bicycle and the father who has abandoned him (not necessarily in that order). During one of several escape attempts, he winds up in an office waiting room, where he impulsively clings to a woman named Samantha (Cecile de France). "You can hold me, but not so tight," she says calmly as he hangs on for dear life.
So begins an unlikely friendship between Cyril and Samantha, the latter of whom offers to take him on weekends - after Cyril himself suggests it. "The Kid With a Bike" has all the makings of a suffocatingly sweet melodrama about a self-sacrificing mother figure and the wayward surrogate son she selflessly saves. ("The Blind Side" with Belgians!) Instead, the Dardennes present a refreshingly frank portrait of two people who, despite their differences in years, generally say exactly what they mean to each other.
Samantha, a single hairdresser played by de France with world-weary attractiveness, harbors no illusions about her wounded, angry charge (from her very first words to him, she knows to give him space). For his part, Cyril is one of the most inspiringly resilient, self-aware young characters to arrive on-screen in recent memory, an embodiment of a child's instinctive capacity to claim his right to be loved, to ask for what he needs and, sadly, to indulge in grievous self-deception.
Those instincts all begin to blur in the course of "The Kid With a Bike," especially when Cyril encounters a Fagin-like local tough. But he and the ingenious filmmakers who created him navigate that potential shoal with the graceful, unstudied realism of "The Bicycle Thieves," which hovers over the production like a benevolent forebear. (The Dardennes' signature un-flowery style is punctuated by occasional and effective passages of mournful orchestral music. They're also masters of the unbroken take, one of which, in a restaurant's kitchen, captures one of the most agonizing and pivotal moments in the film.)
It bears noting that "The Kid With a Bike" won a grand jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, where it shared the program with Aki Kaurismaki's delightful fable "Le Havre." The two films act as bracing examples of movies about adults keeping faith with children that, despite being stylistically opposite, ring equally true.
Contains brief profanity. In French with English subtitles.