People love to make movies about the sweet and simple faith of children, but not so many have the courage to examine its flip side, the monstrous stubbornness that only a kid can summon. Anyone who has spent much time around children knows that when they decide they absolutely will (or will not) do something, convincing them otherwise is only slightly less difficult than climbing Mount Everest, and no amount of logic, reason, or begging is likely to change their mind.
The sibling writing and directing team of Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne have made the maddening determination of a 12-year-old boy the focal point on their drama The Kid With a Bike (aka Le gamin au vélo) and it's an unusual and uncompromising view of a troubled youth making his way though difficult circumstances.
In The Kid With a Bike, Thomas Doret plays Cyril, who is living in a state school for orphaned boys. However, Cyril isn't an orphan -- he has a father, but while it's obvious to anyone that the man has abandoned his child, Cyril absolutely refuses to believe it, and keeps running away in hopes of finding him. After Cyril makes his way to the apartment he used to share with his dad, he discovers the flat is empty, and that his bike is gone along with all their possessions.
Certain there's some reasonable explanation for all this, Cyril begins asking questions around the neighborhood about his dad's whereabouts, and at a medical clinic in the basement of his old apartment building, he meets Samantha (Cécile De France), a woman in her mid-thirties who runs a nearby hairdressing salon. When Samantha sees Cyril's bike being sold second hand, she buys it and returns it to the boy; he in turn asks her to sign on as his foster guardian so he can leave the school grounds on weekends. She accepts, and with her help they find Cyril's father, who, under pressure from Samantha, finally tells his son he doesn't want him around anymore. Cyril is crushed, but the experience brings him closer to Samantha, who is willing to deal with his mood swings and his inability to compromise, and give his life some stability and boundaries. Cyril enjoys spending time with Samantha, but he clearly wants a male role model in his life, and he's fiercely protective of his bicycle, the last tangible evidence of his relationship with his father. When a kid tries to steal Cyril's bike, it leads to a fistfight, and Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a small-time hood just out of his teens, breaks up the rumble and nicknames Cyril "Pitbull" for his ferocity. Cyril spends the afternoon hanging out with Wes, and though it's clear the older boy has an ulterior motive, Cyril is all too willing to help his new friend, which leads him down a dangerous path.
The Kid With a Bike is unusually unsentimental for a movie about children, and while filmmakers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne have made Cyril a sympathetic character, they've taken the brave step of making him pretty hard to like at times. As played by Doret, Cyril is a real kid with real problems, and it's not difficult to recognize the desperate need that fuels his obsession with his father, just as much as you pity the adults who have to live with his bull-headed obstinacy. There's also an innocence in Cyril's refusal to acknowledge his dad's failings, and while there's nothing sweet about it, that makes it no less affecting. Doret's performance is pitch-perfect in its naturalism, and Cécile De France is every bit as good as the woman who takes him in and tries to make a home for him; it's a bit hard to see why Samantha so readily bonds with him at first, but the byplay between them feels right as her wariness strikes a delicate balance with her maternal instincts. This is the sort of story that would be emotionally manipulative in the wrong hands, but the Dardenne brothers give this material the texture of real life, where not all pieces fit together neatly, and the narrative, dialogue, visual style, and pacing manage to feel honest and realistic while revealing a sure hand and an artful touch. The Kid With a Bike is a tough but heartfelt story that speaks to the resilience of children as well as the deep emotional hurdles sometimes set before them; it's a powerful, well-crafted film and a striking depiction of a side of growing up few filmmakers have tried to put on film. Fewer still have captured it with this sort of honesty and emotional gravity.