I’m having to rethink Belgium’s Dardenne Brothers. I mostly disliked The Son (2002), but I rather liked Lorna’s Silence (2009). Now, I find that their latest, The Kid with a Bike, strikes me as close to being a perfect little movie. Note, however, the word “little.” This is a small scale, almost minimalist movie (the only notable music in the film, for instance, is one recurring theme from Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto) with a refreshingly short running time of 87 minutes. The story is a simple one. The emotions it contains and evokes are not so simple.
Newcomer Thomas Doret stars as Cyril, the kid of the title. When the film opens. Cyril is ensconced in a “boys home” where he was dumped “temporarily” by his father, Guy (Jérémie Renier, Lorna’s Silence). Not believing that his keepers are really dialing the right number—and getting a disconnected phone message—he makes them let him call himself, and gets the same response. He makes a break and goes to his old apartment, where he finds his father has bolted—and taken his son’s bicycle in the bargain. Caught by the authorities, Cyril tries to stave off being removed by tightly embracing a woman, Samantha (Cécile De France, Hereafter), who finds that the kid strikes a chord in her. In fact, she tracks down his bike (his father sold it), buys it back and returns it to him. Impulsively, Cyril asks if he can go home with her—to a beauty parlor with living quarters—on the weekends. Just as impulsively, she agrees. When he later asks her why she agreed, I fully believe her answer, “I don’t know.” And the film never directly explains, though it shares her own sense of surprise at her feelings.
As might be expected, things don’t go too well. And Cyril’s tendency to be less than cheerful or cooperative (even if it’s an attempt to shield himself against rejection) is no help. Matters take a turn when the two track down and visit the boy’s father, whom, despite all evidence to the contrary, Cyril believes will make life right. To say that the truth of the situation does not live up to Cyril’s beliefs is an understatement. Not only does his father want nothing do with him and have no intention of ever reclaiming him, but he wants Samantha to do the dirty work of telling this to the boy. What happens from there I’ll mostly leave to the film, though I will note that it probably won’t be what you expect it to be.
The film’s great gift is that it veers toward predictable melodrama on several occasions, yet it never goes there. I think I know why, but it’s only a guess on my part. I claim no special insight into the Dardenne Brothers’ minds, but my suspicion is that they approach the drama here with the thought in mind that life—though hardly free of melodrama—is rarely as rife with it as the movies, and so deliberately sidestep it. Life often seems to be headed toward melodrama, but it typically plays out rather less drastically than we’ve braced ourselves for.
Despite its smallness, The Kid with a Bike packs a terrific emotional wallop—and does so without ever being obviously manipulative. (Compare the boy in this film with the one in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close for starters.) It addresses the issue of abandonment in a clear-eyed manner, dressing it in a story that includes elements that, in less assured hands, might seem positively Dickensian. (That’s not to say that being Dickensian is necessarily a bad thing.) Unlike many films, it genuinely earns every feeling it evokes. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, brief language and smoking.