Film Reviews

The Kid with a Bike Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Rating - 8/10

In The Kid with a Bike [Le gamin au vélo], the masterful Dardenne Brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, harness nostalgic feelings of Italian Neorealist and French New Wave cinema (Bicycle Thieves and The 400 Blows, respectively) while reinforcing their ability to tell a definitively timeless coming-of-age story of a preadolescent in crisis.  With their latest film, the Dardennes have even drawn associations to fairy tales "with its unconflicted characters and perilous forest where the driven but vulnerable child protagonist is overshadowed and almost swallowed up by towering trees," as scholar Geoff Andrew notes in a recent essay.  The two Belgian-born directors have always lent a firm but sympathetic perspective to the vulnerable or underprivileged in the industrial town of Seraing in their home province of Liège, Belgium.  One may be able to define their modus operandi by the simple purity of approach to their creations, as they elicit Eastern characteristics in Western storytelling.  The single nouns of many of their prior films (The Promise, The Son, The Child) are completely stripped of ego down to the essential element, as if they do not wish to claim credit for their work but simply and poetically relay the thematics.  Without emotional manipulation, a warm invitation is extended to characters in their films as much as potential audiences with confidence in heartening realism.

The film's urgency, immediacy, and pacing is a testament to the Dardennes' singular vision; the camera opens in the middle of a situation as frantic eleven-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) attempts to phone his absentee father.  Although his counselors try tirelessly, they are unable to tame his agitated, spontaneous behavior that could have easily inspired a title like "The Running Boy" (but then that would conjure unwanted associations to Carol Reed and Stephen King) or "Pitbull," Cyril's street name and the film's working title.  By fighting and fleeing, Cyril has developed a tough exterior as a response to his unforgiving environment that seems intent on abandoning him and exacerbating his misfortune.  Above all, Cryril is merely looking for a parental figure who will offer a sense of stability; however, it will not come from his young deadbeat dad, Guy (Jérémie Renier), who constantly pushes away and even tries to sell away the memory of his son.  Cyril is then forced to embrace the nearest figure who offers the faintest hope of companionship.  Most threatening is a local teenage tough and suspected drug dealer named Wes (Egon Di Mateo), presumably after the evil Albert Wesker of Resident Evil fame (as he himself boasts).  Most reassuring is a hairdresser in her thirties named Samantha (Cécile de France); in an impulsive gesture to avoid the dreaded return to a foster home, Cyril clings to her in the medical center of his father's apartment building as if his life is literally in the balance.  Perhaps it is this vital clutch and the desperation in Cyril's voice that prompts Samantha to locate and return his bicycle- a selfless gesture to instill a bit of certainty in a child at a crossroads.

The manner in which Cyril constantly sprints and pedals is perfectly evocative of the mental state of a preteen boy, empathetically exposing how the magnitude of any event at his age can seem like a matter of life and death.  Whether it's repeatedly chasing down a peer who has stolen his bike or fleeing a crime he was coerced into committing, Cyril is invariably human, finding himself fighting for both sides of the law to claim an identity and the undying need for companionship and comfort.  While the film threatens to prevail with themes of vengeance in its final act, the Dardennes quickly lift that veil to reveal an infectious tenderness; ultimately, through its trials and tribulations, The Kid with a Bike avoids maudlin mechanics to emerge as a youthful declaration of optimism.  Guided by an altruistic lone woman, Samantha, "a fairy godmother," the film flows with compassion and forgiveness for a boy in the face of various adversity and deterrents.  She resists the urge to seek a scapegoat and shows the titular kid the path on which to ride.  In a complementary melodious promise, the Dardennes offer four brief cues from Beethoven's eternal "Emperor" (Concerto No. 5); the music's understated "consoling tenderness" in response to grief signifies a belief in a new day.