Cyril (Thomas Doret), almost 12, has only one plan: to find the father who left him temporarily in a children's home. By chance, he meets Samantha (Cécile De France), who runs a hairdressing salon and agrees to let him stay with her at weekends. Cyril doesn't recognise the love Samantha feels for him, a love he desperately needs to calm his rage.
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Some of the critics on the spot at the Cannes Film Festival in May felt that The Kid with a Bike, the new film from Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, was 'minor Dardenne", a read that is both shortsighted in how the two veterans of social realism – who’ve been on a tear this century with the likes of Lorna’s Silence, The Child, and The Son – have considered the moral boundaries of their always intimate milieu, and the stylistic digressions that marks the film out from its forebears. The Kid with a Bike, with its obvious debt to Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 landmark Bicycle Thieves, is a simpler film in terms of structure and psychological depth, but that’s part of centering it in a child’s progression.
Blessed with a scrapper’s stance and a determined face, 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) has been living in a children’s home for a month, waiting for a father who’s made no attempt to contact him, let alone take him away. The boy’s dedication is both pure and destructive; he’s convinced his father is on his way, with his bike. When he calls their one-time apartment and gets a disconnected signal, Cyril simply flees the institution and heads there to check in person; no-one can tell him otherwise. His desire for a paternal presence makes him a detective of sorts, and even as the evidence mounts at the housing estate in the Dardenne’s regular haunt, working class Seraing, he refuses to give up hope.
Cornered by counselors calmly pursuing him in a medical practice, Cyril literally latches on to Samantha (Cecile de France), a local hairdresser, and the sheer intensity of contact – he’s holding on for the hope of a life with his father – imprints on her. Samantha buys back the boy’s bike – the father had sold it, Cyril sees the advert – and after she returns it to him he asks her to foster him on weekends. The filmmakers offer no reason for Samantha’s agreement, perhaps because Cyril himself doesn’t pause to consider why she says yes, but de France’s physical presence is a kind of bulwark upon which the child can batter himself.
The social point the film makes – that young boys need their fathers to have a positive presence – is uncomplicated, but it is shown in via both the casual rejection visited upon Cyril by his father, Guy (Jeremie Renier), who has relocated to start anew and can barely give him 10 minutes of time, and the loyalty he displays to Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a teenage tough who affectionately christens Cyril 'Pitbull" after watching him chase down and fight a teenage underling who steals his bike. After an afternoon together playing videogames and talking, Cyril takes up Wes’ cause – robbing a newsagent vendor at the close of the day – with his usual dogmatic fervour. When Samantha refuses to let him outside at night he tries to flee, fights her, and ultimately wounds her (the blood is minor, the emotional damage more so).
The worse Cyril is – in the eyes of others – the more you understand his innate dedication and potential. Unusually for the Dardenne brothers, small snatches of classical music dot the narrative, and each signals an emotional shift. Less is left to the imagination here because they are attuned to a boy’s take on a world he can only see in narrow terms. By the same token there’s an unexpected sense of movement to the narrative, both physically and structurally; advocates of bicycle safety will be aghast at the long takes of Cyril riding his bike, without a helmet, as the camera moves alongside him. The Kid with a Bike pushes towards a resolution, instead of letting it quietly coalesce around the actions of characters until the shift happens suddenly. It even offers a summery coda, proof of the duo’s affection for their protagonist and their refusal to stay within what others may believe are their acclaimed limits.