Eleven-year-old Cyril (first-time actor Thomas Doret) has been discarded — and he's pissed. Rightfully so. Left in the care of a social agency by his father, supposedly for only a month, he refuses to accept that Dad isn't really coming back for him. Or has sold his bike and moved away. Escaping from the state orphanage, Cyril returns to his old apartment only to find each and every room empty. Still, he doesn't believe. There must be another explanation.
If you were to take the various plot devices at work in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's fable-inspired tale, it would be easy to assume that the story is headed for mawkishness. Especially when, in a gesture of kindness, a local hairdresser named Samantha (Cecile de France) buys back Cyril's bike and gives it to him. She ends up becoming the only thing this troubled and volatile young boy can hold onto. (In fact, they meet when he literally clings to her as security officers struggle to return him to the orphanage.) Cyril asks if Samantha will foster him on weekends, and she agrees, only to discover that he sees it as an opportunity to track down his father (Jeremie Renier).
But this is the Dardenne brothers we're talking about here. And though their spare and compassionate films brim with true human emotion, there isn't a sentimental bone in their bodies. Yes, Cyril is trying to claw his way back toward happiness. Yes, Samantha is the gateway to family and redemption. But, in the Dardennes' hands, the kid with a bike is far from the watery-eyed moppet who easily wins our affection. Instead, Cyril is an angry, wounded and sullen boy who isn't going to change because some nice lady gives up her weekends to spend time with him.
And, of course, Samantha gives up far more than that; inch by painful inch, Cyril's pain and disappointment become her own. Why does she do it? Her reasons are never articulated. But she clearly recognizes that the boy desperately needs the stability and patience she can provide. Cyril needs proof that he is deserving of the unconditional love all children should receive. And it's hard, thankless work, made all the more complicated when, desperate for a father figure, Cyril falls under the spell of a local drug dealer.
True to their naturalistic instincts, the Dardenne brothers never hold de France's character up as a saint. Rather, she is a woman who is touched by Cyril's seemingly bottomless need for connection and feels compelled to fill it.
In some ways, The Kid with a Bike is like a slow-moving, neorealist version of Pinocchio — going so far as to re-create the classic's Honest John and Gideon as modern-day thugs. But where fables trade in broad-stroke messaging and exaggerated emotions, the Dardennes create an emotionally raw drama that quietly advocates social consciousness and moral responsibility.
For some, the already brief The Kid with a Bike probably takes a bit long to chart its dramatic course. But once Cyril is faced with his toughest test — the one where he has to decide what kind of person he wants to be — the film delivers a final act as riveting as it is artistically satisfying. Not many films can claim a perfect ending. This one can.
In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
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