This review originally appeared on Capital New York.
In the opening scene of Kid With a Bike, directed by legendary Belgian brother-team Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, a 13-year-old boy (Thomas Doret) tries to call his father from a phone in an office as a man hovers over him. The father’s phone is disconnected. The boy refuses to accept this and keeps dialing the number, despite the insistence of the man standing there to hang up the phone, don’t dial again, I’m warning you. Eventually, the man grabs the boy to keep him away from the phone and the boy breaks away, running as fast as he can, out of the office, out of the building, across the lawn, with a couple of people in pursuit. He tries to climb the fence, and is dragged off it by his pursuers. He is thrown to the ground. We don’t even know the situation yet, we don’t even know what has happened, but in 5 minutes of screen time we can guess. It doesn’t matter, essentially, not yet, because the filming is so urgent, so realistic, we are thrust headlong into the middle of an unfolding event, and the little boy is so ferocious, so intent on his objective we are invested in him. How dare these people throw a small boy to the ground?
It doesn’t take long for the essential plot to reveal itself. Cyril’s father dropped him off at an orphanage and disappeared without a word of explanation. Cyril cannot accept his father will not return for him. He wants to go to his father’s apartment and get his bike. Over the course of this profound and deeply moving film, Cyril does get his bike back, and he does find his father, but the catharsis one would expect never comes.
The Dardenne brothers are known for their realistic unfussy style, and their avoidance of psychological explanations for characters and plot. In Kid With a Bike, Cyril meets a hairdresser named Samantha (the fantastic Cécile de France), who becomes his weekend foster-parent.
They meet by a chance encounter. Cyril keeps running away from the orphanage trying to find his father and retrieve his bike. He goes to his father’s apartment complex, ringing the doorbell. Constantly on the run from orphanage officials, he hides out in the crowded waiting room of a doctor’s office in his father’s building, where a scuffle ensues when the officials find him. Cyril, trying to resist his attackers, knocks a woman to the ground and clings to her as men try to pull him off. In the middle of the chaos, we hear her say, “You can hold me, it’s okay, just not so tight.” It’s a curious remark. The Dardenne brothers do not linger on it, there are no huge closeups to indicate this woman will be the other lead in the movie. The scene moves on, and Cyril is hauled back to the orphanage. But THE strange comment lingers in the air.
“You can hold me, it’s okay, just not so tight.”
Who would say something like this when knocked over by a young teenager out of the blue?
Samantha shows up at the orphanage a couple days later. She had heard the boy screaming about his bike, and, on her own, found the bike for him, which had been sold. She bought it back. She wears tight leopard-skin tank tops, bright blue bra straps showing, little denim skirts, and wedges. Her hair has frosted tips. Her biceps bulge. Cyril grabs the bike back, says “Thank you”, and rides around her car, seemingly lost in a world of his own. As she drives away, he chases her car down, raps on the window, and asks if he can come stay with her on weekends. She says, “Sure. I’ll call the orphanage and set it up.”
It is never explained why she would do such a thing. The lack of explanation is the movie’s greatest strength. Samantha is not a warm or maternal person, but she is kind, straightforward, and open-minded. She helps him track down his father, working in a restaurant a couple of towns away. In a devastating scene, Cyril and his father (Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier) meet. The father wants nothing to do with his son. He is starting a new life, he can’t take care of a kid, he is ready to leave the other life behind. He is breathtakingly open about this, and his shame about his own failure is eloquent in every glance. Cyril, with the resilience of children, tries to make the encounter last, tries to get his father to promise to call him. We can clearly see, from moment one, that this man is a shit, this man does not deserve to be loved as strongly as he is loved by his son. But he’s all Cyril’s got.
Even after moving in with Samantha, young Cyril is always on the move. Running, climbing, pouncing on a kid who steals his bike, biting, fighting, he moves fearlessly and immediately. There is no pause between impulse and action. This is the debut of young Thomas Doret and it is an extraordinary performance in that it doesn’t feel like a performance. He is not a sentimentalized child. He is antisocial, tough, withdrawn. He is all survival skills. He gets out of his own scrapes, because he can run fast, he bites people when they attack him, he has his bike as a getaway “car”. Samantha worries about him, she doesn’t want him hanging around with the local hood who takes an interest in him, and she tries to get him to be interested in a young sweet schoolmate who wants to be his friend. The local hood calls Cyril “Pitbull” (it is a term of endearment), and things go south in a way that feels awful and inevitable.
Kid With a Bike is not a character study or a psychological melodrama, although it may sound as such by the description. It is more of a fairy tale, complete with dark forest where bad things happen and where rules don’t apply, and a Good Fairy appears who operates from a universal font of good-heartedness and empathy. We all have that in us. We all could choose to be as good and open and uncomplicatedly kind as Samantha.
Her love for Cyril is urgent and worried, and we are right to worry for him, too. He is such a small figure, pedaling furiously through the streets, hair plastered to his forehead, his body strong and yet fragile, his impulses bursting out of him spontaneously (there is one terrifying moment when he jumps out of an amusement-park ride just as it starts to move). Samantha showing up with the bike at the orphanage was all he needed to know about her character, and is all we need to know as well. But societal forces are at work, and Cyril has been abandoned, on the cusp of being a young man. What the hell is going to happen to such a child?
Those questions are insistent, and socio-political, weaving their way through every frame of this superb film.
Kindness is not an easy thing to put on film. Benevolence is even more difficult to capture. The Dardenne brothers know that there are mischief-makers out there who wish us ill. They know that vulnerability is protected by certain kinds of people and exploited by others. Childhood is treacherous. But the Dardenne brothers also know that there are mysteriously good people out there, who will look out for you, who will care about you even when you are obnoxious and rebellious.
Such things do not need to be explained.