I'd been reading about the Dardenne brothers' films for somewhere upward of 15 years and figured it was probably time I got around to seeing one. Outside of 10 minutes of 1999's "Rosetta" - stopped because the extreme shaky-cam was making my wife physically ill - I'd never seen any of these critically-worshipped Belgians' uber-realist pictures. "The Kid With A Bike" from 2011 was an excellent place to start, and it packs a wallop in its 87 minutes. It's a portrait of the choices a troubled, abandoned boy makes on the precipice of his adolescence; the ramifications of those choices; and a vivid illustration of the volatile lives of the world' foster children.
Cyril is the youth in question. Abandoned out of the blue and without any warning by his father (we never actually hear of a mother), he's placed into a group home. Cyril stews over what's happened, and after ultimately tracking down his deadbeat dad, comes to realize he's truly on his own. This is devastating to him, and he claws at his own face with his fingernails and performs all manner of antisocial, youth-in-revolt acts. Luckily he's somewhat magically taken in on weekends by a benevolent hairdresser named Samantha, who's recovered the bicycle his dad sold off to help pay his own bills. This is where the divergent paths are set up, telegraphed from a mile away: will Cyril embrace the good-hearted Samantha and the good life she offers, or lead a teenaged life of misery (drugs, prison, the whole lot)?
Naturally, he's a sullen preteen and has significant issues articulating the pain his father has wrought. Samantha
struggles mightily with her communication as well, and when she's asked
point-blank by Cyril why she took him in, the best she can come up with
is, "I don't know". Sometimes more tension can be wrung out of people
saying the wrong thing in what could be psychologically life-altering
situations than all the marital spats, chase scenes and killers in
closets combined. And yet the Dardennes don't do anything particularly surprising nor shocking in the film - it all unfolds more or less as you'd expect, with some fairly violent events moving the narrative along and wringing even more tension out of the proceedings.
It doesn't, therefore, hit many bum notes. I thought the "him or me" ultimatum from Gilles, Samantha's barely-formed boyfriend, was a little hard to believe, and a rare dramatic misstep in an otherwise well-timed drama. It's pretty minor in the face of the Dardennes' simple, measured, medium-pathos and moderately uplifting approach, which splits the difference between the two paths quite well and leaves one curious as to where this boy will ultimately end up.