The Kid With a Bike, the new film from Belgian art-house legends Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, begins with Cyril, a scrappy 11-year-old living in an urban orphanage and making what is apparently his umpteenth unsuccessful attempt to reach his deadbeat dad (Jérémie Renier) by phone. Dad promised to come back for the kid in a month — and then changed his mobile number and disappeared. The counselor who dials the number is clearly out of patience for Cyril's persistence. “It's like last time,” the adult warns the kid. But Cyril either can't or won't fathom the notion that what happened “last time” will happen again. He soon flees school in an attempt to track down both his dad and the bike he left at his dad's house.
A pint-sized blur of motion, Cyril is constantly running, riding, fighting, biting or else struggling to catch his breath. The film's star, first-time actor Thomas Doret, has an urgency that conveys both Cyril's unbearable loneliness and a child's distorted sense of time — with no learned knowledge that this too shall pass, both happy times and sad feel, in the moment, as though they're going to last forever.
When Cyril carelessly crashes into Samantha (Cécile de France), a hairdresser with a shop in his father's former neighborhood, he certainly has no time for pleasantries: The moment Samantha, a stranger, does something nice for him, he impulsively asks her to be his foster mom. In what plays within the Dardennes' understated naturalism as a shocking twist, she agrees.
This tentative new family is threatened when Cyril, desperate for male mentorship, falls prey to the manipulations of Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a slick, teenage thug.
The second half of the film consists of a fight for Cyril's soul, with the straight-and-narrow world and work of small businesswoman Samantha on one side and the marginal milieu of Wes and his adolescent gang, who lure Cyril into the forest on the outskirts of town, on the other. In placing an unformed boy in limbo between an angelic godmother and wolves in the woods, The Kid With a Bike is, in essence, a fairy tale.
That essence is heightened by aesthetics. With two Palme d'Or–winning films (1999's Rosetta and 2005's L'Enfant), the Dardennes are among the most honored directors of their time, despite or because of having spent their careers developing an unvarnished vérité style that often makes you forget that what you're watching was “directed” at all. In what feels like a significant departure for them, the Dardennes make their presence known in The Kid With a Bike through orchestral soundtrack music, underscoring a handful of moments with a few soaring notes that swell up just as Cyril bumps into a new obstacle, each one a step in his process of learning humility. The music — a mix of pre-existing cues and a score written for the film — binds the film as a fiction, the work of storytellers, and not the Dardennes' typical window onto reality.
In a 2009 Reverse Shot interview, Jean-Pierre Dardenne described the characters he and his brother chose to write as “somewhat autistic,” which helped to explain why adult Dardenne protagonists like the titular immigrant of their last film, Lorna's Silence, or the father played by Renier in L'Enfant — both of whom enter into horrible black-market transactions for their own immediate benefit and only through the course of the narrative begin to understand the consequences of what they have done — come late to their moral awakening. Those films tie the characters' cold blindness to the value of human life to frigid, harsh environments and economic desperation. Although Samantha's and Wes' highly symbolic roles are of a piece with the brothers' typical socioeconomic concerns (legitimate work is the ideal, but illegitimate work is a lot easier to come by), The Kid With a Bike seems to unfold in a different world than that of previous Dardenne joints, one with a wider range of spiritual and practical possibilities.
In contrast to the bleak winterscapes and narratives of mounting dread that dominate the Dardenne filmography, Bike's action takes place in the summer, the T-shirted boy moving against a palette of primary colors and hazy, warm light — the vibe is hopeful. Cyril is a still-pliable character living in a world in which the sun shines, and Samantha seems to exist for the sole purpose of offering security, stability and, through unconditional nurture, an education in how to treat other people.
The age and inexperience of their subject, his youthful passion and embryonic logic, give the filmmakers a blank slate for their ongoing exploration of how we come to moral consciousness. It's a version of their same inquiry but on a new path and with a new destination — a tentative happy ending. Call it a summer action film, Dardenne-style.
THE KID WITH A BIKE | Written and directed by JEAN-PIERRE and LUC DARDENNE | Sundance Selects | Landmark