Dardennes' 'The Kid With a Bike' a Subtle Masterpiece
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
If "The Kid With a Bike" were an American movie -- indie or studio, wouldn't matter -- it's pretty likely that at some point around the climactic actions, the character of the hairdresser who's taken on the responsibility of foster mom for the 13-year-old (or so) title character who's been abandoned by his dad would make a speech to the boy. A speech along the lines of how she knows it's been tough for the kid, but damnit, things are tough for her, too -- hell, she's just dropped her boyfriend on the kid's account! -- and right now all they've got is each other, and if they can't stick together and tell each other the truth, then everything between them isn't worth anything. But that she also loves him. And then the kid would pout, and maybe get a tear in his eye, and then ...
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But this isn't an American movie; it's a Belgian movie, and it's a Belgian movie written and directed by the venerable brother team of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. And in Dardenne Brothers movies there are no big speeches. There's barely any music, if at all. Things happen, terrible things, disastrous things, but they're depicted with a straightforwardness that almost amounts to a refusal to indulge the audience. They're arguably cinematic minimalists, but they're going for maximal effectiveness in terms of eliciting genuine emotional response. Their method is plainly evident in the opening minutes of this film. Having been given the news that his dad is gone, and unreachable, little Cyril (young Thomas Doret, superb in his first film role) simply refuses to believe, and tries to escape the institution where he's staying. His keepers try to restrain him. He runs, he's caught, he's pinned down, he pretends to calm down; as soon as he thinks he's got his adult minders fooled, he pops up and goes off into a sprint again. It's pretty clear that he's never going to stop, or he thinks he's never going to stop. This is all shown in a series of very direct, clearly framed, and unfussily patient medium shots, and any viewer with empathy will recall situations like the one Cyril is in, situations in which one's only desire was to get out, and in which getting out was in fact an extremely remote possibility, if a possibility at all.
During one of Cyril's forays, he desperately tackles a young woman in a waiting room. He holds on to her as his keepers try to talk him into going with them. "You can hold on to me," she tells the confused, angry kid. "But not so tight." This is Samantha, the hairdresser (an excellent Cécile de France, sporting an unflattering '80s-vintage 'do herself). After this encounter, she agrees with the administrators of the home to look after Cyril on weekends. The duo track down Cyril's messed-up, uninterested dad (Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier) who doesn't want the kid and doesn't have the stones to tell him so himself. The resilient Samantha, who's exceptionally generous but no doormat, forces the issue. All she asks of Cyril is honesty, but once Cyril is taken under the wing of a local hood, who nicknames Cyril "Pitbull," that request becomes a problem. When Cyril does the wrong thing, it turns out to be for a thoroughly heartbreaking reason, and that's just the beginning of his trouble.
What eventually unfolds is a film about, to use Brian Wilson's phrase, love and mercy, and also about goodness and the finding of goodness. In less than 90 minutes, it builds to a quiet resolution, a cinematic miracle in which nothing happens and everything happens, and which brought some tears to this critic's eyes. At last year's Cannes film festival, some critics shrugged this off as "minor Dardenne." They're wrong on the face of it, but by the same token, this isn't a work for which such glib critical commonplaces as "major" or "minor" have any kind of meaning. For "The Kid With a Bike," the simple act of its being seems enough to constitute a kind of perfection.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.