The only other film I’ve seen by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is The Child, which I didn’t much care for her, mostly because I could not bring myself to give a shit about the main character, a slimeball. There is a similar challenge in The Kid With a Bike (they do not favor obscure titles, these brothers), in that we are almost always in the company of a kid who is brimming with rage, and is like Dennis the Menace squared.
The film begins with Cyril (Thomas Doret), in an orphanage. His father has dropped him off there (there is no mention of a mother), telling him he will be back for him soon. Cyril wants to find him, telling everyone it’s mostly for his bike, which he can’t believe his father would sell. He escapes from the home and interviews his father’s associates, finally finding his apartment, which is empty. Along the way, he runs into a doctor’s office, his school counselors chasing him, and in order to prevent capture he wraps his arms around a woman bystander as if she were a pole. “You can hold me, but not too tight,” the woman tells him.
She turns out to be a hairdresser, Samantha (Cecile de France). She takes pity on the kid and finds his bicycle and buys it back (his father did indeed sell it). It takes them longer to find the father, who ends up working in a restaurant. Cyril and his dad have an awkward five minutes together, and then the father (Jeremie Renier), who could be the character from The Child ten years later, wants some time with Samantha. He tells her he does not want to see his son again. She makes him tell Cyril this face to face, and whatever annoyance we had at Cyril vanishes–what child, of any age, could live through that without being fundamentally changed?
This is the first half hour of the film, so it’s misleading to think that the story is about Cyril finding either his bicycle or his father. In essence, he spends the film trying to find love. Samantha becomes his weekend guardian, doing her best to keep tabs on his anger. Cyril’s bike keeps getting stolen by the same kid (you’d think he’d invest in a lock)–the second time the thief lures him into the woods, like something out of the Brothers Grimm. Cyril fights for the bike viciously, earning the respect of the neighborhood tough guy, a kind of Fagin. This kid, who names himself Wes after a character from Resident Evil, tells Cyril he has earned his respect, nicknames him Pitbull, and invites him to his house to play Assassin’s Creed. This is all a set up to convince Cyril to commit a crime for him. Cyril, no doubt viewing Wes as a surrogate father, agrees.
This is a very good film, with a strong juvenile performance by Doret. There is a large donut hole in the middle, though, and that is the character of Samantha. Why would a single woman with no children take on a troubled boy as if on a whim? We have no background information on her. She has a boyfriend, whom we see briefly, and who gives her an ultimatum–Cyril or me. She chooses Cyril without a thought. Why? In an interview with Film Comment, the Dardennes brothers address this and suggest it was intentional, that we should not question basic human decency. I can’t buy that argument, because otherwise it just seems like lazy screenwriting.
If the Dardennes had added ten minutes to the film (it’s only 95 minutes long) to flesh out Samantha, this might have been a much more conventional film, but also a much more enriching one.
My grade for The Kid With a Bike: B.