Title: The Kid with a Bike
Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Screenwriters: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Starring: Thomas Doret, Cécile de France, Jérémie Renier
Screened at the 2011 Telluride Film Festival.
The Dardenne Brothers’ The Kid with a Bike is a character study of boundless empathy. It is impossibly wise about childhood, human frailty, and moral responsibility. I will return to it again and again for comfort and perspective. It is chicken soup for my black, cynical husk of a soul.
Kids are inclined to think in absolutes. And so Cyril (Thomas Doret), the Dardennes’ 11-year old protagonist, absolutely refuses to believe that his father has moved away, sold his precious bike, and left him in a state orphanage indefinitely. After all, he said it would only be for a month. Ergo all of the other adults insisting that he is gone are wrong or lying. Biting and darting like a feral cat, Cyril runs to his dad’s old apartment, and inspects every empty room. Even then he doesn’t believe it. He must have been forced to go away, and take the bike with him.
A kind hairdresser (Cecile de France) recognizes Cyril’s bike and buys it back from its new owner. It’s a kind gesture, and the usually mistrustful boy asks if she would foster him on weekends. She agrees. But Cyril hasn’t given up on his father. Samantha, the hairdresser, tracks him down and they go to see him. There’s no dramatic confrontation. “When are you coming for me?” Cyril asks. The dad, played by the great Jeremie Renier, takes down Cyril’s mobile number and promises to call, but it’s clear he wants nothing to do with the kid. “I’m starting over,” he tells Samantha out of earshot. “I can’t if he’s around.”
As Cyril, Thomas Doret is an amazing discovery — he has a compact intensity of a born star, commanding attention without ever asking for sympathy — but the real triumph is the way his character is written. The Dardennes’ screenplay is extraordinary in its ability to pack drama and heartbreak into simple, naturalistic, entirely unsentimental scenes. Cyril’s dialogue is artfully terse and often beautiful (or at least the translation is), but at the same time perfectly plausible for a bright 11-year old boy: “I’ve come to see you. Do I jump or will you open the door?” he yells to his dad over a fence. He can be nasty and an awful brat (he certainly isn’t cute) but the movie makes sense of it: his family has left him with wounds that won’t heal just because a nice lady lets him stay with her on weekends.
Cyril’s pride and desperate need for a father figure he can respect gets him into some third-act trouble I’m loath to describe. The last 30 minutes of The Kid with a Bike are the year’s most riveting stretch of film, and the ending is just perfect. After what must have been years spent flailing in anger, Cyril faces his toughest test, and does the right thing.
— Eugene Novikov