I’m not all that familiar with the work of the Dardenne brothers. The Belgian filmmaking duo has made several films that have garnered critical praise that I never have seen. But I’ll say without hesitation, if their other films are as good as “The Kid with a Bike”, I’m going to make a point to check them out. The Dardenne’s wrote, produced, and directed this emotionally penetrating picture that I assure you will touch your heart. The Dardenne’s filmmaking style has been described as intensely naturalistic and they are known for making films about common people with relatable promises. That certainly describes “The Kid with the Bike” and with the exception of a few small gripes, it really sold me on the characters and had me genuinely caring about their problems.
The movie is set in Seraing, Belgium and tells the story of 11-year old Cyril played by Thomas Doret. He’s a troubled kid who is constantly trying to escape from the foster home and the counselors who care for him. We find out that Cyril is looking for his father who left him at the home. One day he does get away and tries to track down his father at their old apartment. The counselors find him and chase him into a doctor’s office waiting room where, after being cornered, he clings to a woman named Samantha (Cecile De France). Later,through a tremendous act of grace, Samantha finds Cyril’s beloved bike that had been sold by his father and takes it to him at the home. She even goes further by agreeing to allow Cyril to stay with her on weekends. During this time she helps him in his search for his father. But the search turns out bad for young Cyril and he’s faced with all sorts of feelings and emotions that a child that age should never have to deal with.
At it’s core, “The Kid with a Bike” is a story of compassion, hope, forgiveness, and redemption. It’s a painful look at a young child’s innocent expectations being shattered. And if not for one woman’s compassion, his entire life could have went an entirely different direction. In fact, young Cyril does put a strain on his relationship with Samantha. He makes some poor choices later in the film but once again compassion and forgiveness are key to how things play out. Samantha’s kindness is uncommon and unmerited yet she sacrifices so much for this young boy. She’s also a really fascinating character herself. You can tell that she also is missing something in her life. We never get any indication that she has a lot of friends. She does have a self-absorbed boyfriend but even her relationship with him feels distant. There’s a void in her life and just maybe Cyril can fill it.
This is a stirring, poignant story and the Dardenne’s do a great job of drawing the audience right into the middle of everything that’s going on. Young Thomas Doret is fantastic as young Cyril and he gives an incredibly authentic and grounded performance. So often the camera just follows him around and you can sense the conflicted feelings raging within him. There’s one beautifully conceived long take of Cyril riding his bike. He’s riding fast and the camera stays right next to him throughout the entire take. I remember just watching him and wondering what all must be going through his head. There are several brilliant scenes like that where the Dardennes are able to tell their story through more than just the dialogue. I also have to mention Cecile De France’s wonderful performance. As I mentioned, her character is caring and compassionate but she’s also missing something in her life. De France sells that to us beautifully. And I hate to keep using descriptions such as “natural” and “authentic” but it perfectly describes her work.
Perhaps my biggest problem with the film is the ending. A lot of it is due to a particular style of storytelling and filmmaking but the abrupt ending just didn’t work for me. It’s not that it’s simply ambiguous or that it doesn’t give us any real sense of closure. The ending simply left me feeling shortchanged. It was as if there was still a little story to tell but the Dardenne’s pulled the plug. I’m not saying that the movie had to have a tightly structured and seamless ending, but here I left the theater a little unfulfilled.
Despite it’s quick ending, “The Kid with a Bike” is still a really good film driven by two very, very good performances. It’s a story that draws emotion from the audience without any hint of falsity or manipulation. It’s filmed in a way that makes you feel as if you’re right there in the scene watching everything unfold. It features some really clever camera work, perfect pacing, and a visual style that works perfectly for this type of film. “The Kid with a Bike” sparks my interest in the Dardenne brothers’ other work and it’s a movie that you need to make an effort to see. It’s a great reminder of just how good foreign cinema can be.