The Kid with a Bike is the eighth feature directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, the Belgian filmmakers whose breakthrough film Rosetta won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1999. If you’re an American, like me, you probably haven’t heard of the Dardenne brothers. That’s too bad. Rosetta was one of the best films of the 1990s. The Kid with a Bike is almost as good.
The Kid with a Bike opens with Cyril, an angelic looking eleven-year-old boy, repeatedly making a phone call to an out-of-service number. After an adult takes the phone away from Cyril, and he runs out of the room in anguish out into a courtyard and tries to climb over a tall fence, we realize three things. Cyril’s father has abandoned him. He lives in a state-run orphanage. The Dardenne brothers are making an homage to François Truffaut’s classic The 400 Blows, a film you’ve probably seen, even if you’re an American.
Cyril’s father, we later learn, is a callow young man who has simply run away from his responsibilities. Right now, all Cyril wants is his bike. It’s only a cheap, department store mountain bike that’s probably worth all of a hundred bucks, but it’s his last connection to his dad. He’s so intent on getting it back that he somehow manages to slip out of the orphanage, and navigate Seraing’s bus system back to their old apartment. We never learn what happened to his mother. Perhaps she ran off with Rosetta’s father (whose fate in the earlier film is similarly left unexplained). The bike isn’t in their old room, which Cyril, a determined and relentless a little boy, has managed to bluff his way inside, but he finds something even better, a new mother.
Samantha, a working-class woman in her thirties – she runs a hair salon — represents an argument filmmakers don’t often make these days. Good is not only more interesting than evil. It’s a lot more enigmatic. The Kid with a Bike never explains why Samantha is so determined to save Cyril – perhaps she’s a grown up Rosetta who had a bad childhood herself – but after he quite literally runs into her arms in public, she becomes his guardian angel. First she buys the bike back from the neighbor who bought it from his father. Then she agrees to become his legal guardian. Cécile de France, who plays Samantha, is a terrific actress, and the Dardennes brothers know how to use her talent. Watching The Kid with a Bike I was almost hypnotized into seeing the world, not from the point of view as an adult, but through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy. I never saw Samantha as a sex object, only as a mother. What’s more, I saw her not as an idealized mother, but as a realistic mother. Somehow Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have managed to visualize a perfectly good woman in a completely unromantic way.
The Kid with a Bike dramatizes evil in a similarly down to earth manner. Guy, Cyril’s father, rips his son’s heart out, but he’s not really a bad guy, just a callow young asshole who doesn’t want the responsibility. Wesker the drug dealer, an older teenager who attempts to groom Cyril and seduce him into a life of crime, gives off a pedophile vibe so thick you can cut it with a knife, but he still has a sick old grandmother he helps back up into her bed when she falls out. That evil has a human face leads us to the inevitable question. Will Cyril choose good? Samantha gives him every opportunity but being abandoned by your father is a wound that doesn’t heal easily. Thomas Doret, the 15-year-old Belgian actor who plays Cyril gives a performance well beyond his years, embodying the tormented soul of an abandoned child almost as well as Émilie Dequenne played a bewildered, angry young woman in Rosetta. I dare you to watch the scene where Cyril climbs a fence to get just one look at his (worthless loser of a) father without remembering exactly what it felt like to be a little boy and to lose something you love. If that’s not the purpose of great art, I don’t know what is.