Unfussy, easygoing, and distressing, The Kid with a Bike is an emotional roller-coaster ride about ordinary people in a nondescript neighbourhood. Spooling off – and constituting an inverted riff on – Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neorealist Bicycle Thieves, in which a boy has a dad yet must search for his bike, The Kid with a Bike finds a boy who has a bike yet must search for his dad.
Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne shoot lean, inexpensive movies about unglamorous characters in moments of moral crisis, mostly in and around their home city of Liège. They’re devoted to probing the dark underbelly of humanity, as well as the weak spots in Europe’s decaying social democracy. Their films remind you that the most compelling stories are unfolding right outside your window, rather than in outer space, the distant past, or wherever cinema usually takes us. Their characters are constantly in motion. Their subject matter is often upsetting, and their mode is down-to-earth. Artlessness is their artistry.
As the film begins, 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) is an uncontrollable kid in a group home, immune to the mounting evidence that his father has disappeared and wants nothing to do with him. During one of his escape attempts, he tries to hide in a doctor’s office and winds up clinging to a woman named Samantha (Cécile de France), who becomes his foster parent. Cyril is somewhere between a human turbine and a wild animal, with so much energy in his preadolescent frame that he can’t contain it. His bike is his chariot.
We never learn anything about Cyril’s missing mother, and when Cyril and Samantha finally catch up with Guy (Jérémie Renier), he has no excuses; he’s a total deadbeat, a washout without willpower. With two Palmes d’Or in their Cannes bank account for Rosetta and L’Enfant, the brothers have been amply recognized over the years for this no-explanations approach to human behaviour. I, on the other hand, find this technique deficient, an ornamental form of creative abdication. Sometimes a blank slate is just a blank slate.
However, the Dardennes’ method is preferable to those that tell us how to feel and how to think. While their Grand Prix winner runs over old ground, it produces fresh and fruitful results all the same, and they never hit a false note. A kind and hopeful story about the consequences of abandonment is a minor achievement. It’s not The 400 Blows or Fanny and Alexander, but what can match their psychological bounty? Described by the brothers as a fairy tale, The Kid with a Bike ends with a child stripped of his innocence, with his godmother watching over him.