The Kid With a Bike
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
Written by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
Starring: Thomas Doret, Cécile de France, Jérémie Renier and Egon Di Mateo
The Kid With a Bike is the first encounter I’ve had with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian auteurs who seem to take the art house world by storm with each new movie. This film, their latest, is an emotionally rich story of Cyril (Thomas Doret), a young foster child trying to find his way in a world with increasingly closed doors.
As there often is in movies like this, one person is shamelessly on Cyril’s side even though he is stubborn and rage-filled. Samantha (the fantastic Cécile de France) is at the same medical clinic that Cyril storms through in an attempt to evade officials from the foster home he has escaped from. He clings to her with such force that it takes two men to pry him off of her, though she makes no concerted effort to help them. “You can hold me, but not that tight,” she says to him.
It’s not long after that that she becomes his weekend guardian. The Dardennes are adept at building scenes out of tiny details, like Cyril’s often-stoic face that still somehow conveys what he’s feeling. The movie’s mood is often determined by his movement, though, whether he’s chasing down and attacking someone who steals his bike or gently riding it on the coast with Samantha. This isn’t a coming-of-age tale as much as it is a story of learning how to be a kid.
Cyril’s father (Jérémie Renier) lives in the same city as him, but is too cowardly to actually sever ties completely. Samantha, knowing that her new ward’s determination to find his dad will never be put to rest, tracks him down and forces a confrontation. Confrontation is a strong word for a scene where a quietly ashamed father tells his son not to call or talk to him ever again.
What follows, Cyril clawing and scratching at his own face before crying into Samantha’s arm on the ride home, is decidedly more volatile. It illustrates just how attuned both Doret and the directors are to childhood rage; they turn on themselves and others before they’d ever blame a parent. Cyril is often an infuriating character to watch because, though he’s a child, we become aware that he’s smart enough to know better than to get involved with a drug dealer (Egon Di Mateo).
The way he quietly lures Cyril back to his apartment where his sick grandma is leaves the story possibilities wide open. Finally, it could branch off in as many directions as its main character. Cyril is seduced by the criminal lifestyle not because of wealth but because he wants a father figure, no matter how young and stupid he may be. He doesn’t reject Samantha’s maternal love, and eventually comes to accept it.
Since Samantha’s origins are never really explained and she lives in such close proximity to Cyril’s old house, it isn’t implausible to think she may actually be his mom. That thought lingers in the movie largely because roles are not assigned here but earned. Samantha earns motherhood by taking in, helping and giving structure to Cyril’s otherwise chaotic existence. Cyril, in turn, has to choose between being her son or being an outcast, though consequences follow him even after he makes the “right” decision.
The Kid With a Bike has a lot on its mind, though words are sparse and Cyril rarely holds a full conversation. His wide, stern eyes absorb the world around him with increasing hostility, which in turn follows him even when he tries to settle down. It is cinema in the true sense of the word, what critic and ardent Dardenne supporter Kent Jones would refer to as a response to the world instead of an escape from it.