You worry about ‘The Kid With a Bike,’ without knowing who the kid is, because that’s what people do
In the opening scene of The Kid With a Bike, directed by the legendary Belgian brother-team Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, a 13-year-old boy (Thomas Doret) tries to call his father from a phone in an office as a man hovers over him. The father's phone has been disconnected.
The boy refuses to accept this and keeps dialing the number, even as the man standing over him warns that he'd better stop dialing and hang up. The boy does what he wants to do, despite the increasing pressure on him to put down that phone. Eventually, the man grabs him to keep him away from the phone and the boy breaks away, running as fast as he can, out of the office, out of the building, and across the lawn, with a couple of people in pursuit. He tries to climb the fence, and is dragged off it by his pursuers. He is thrown to the ground.
We don't even know the situation yet, we don't even know what has happened, but in five minutes of screen-time we can guess. It doesn't matter, essentially, not yet, because the filming is so urgent, so realistic, that we are thrust headlong into the middle of an unfolding event, and the little boy is so ferocious, so intent on his objective to first keep dialing that phone, and then, to flee, that we are invested in him. We want him to get what he wants. How dare these people handle him so roughly when he is so small?
It doesn't take long for the essential plot to reveal itself. Cyril is a young boy whose father has dropped him off at an orphanage and then disappeared without a word of explanation. Cyril cannot accept that his father will not return for him, and he also just wants to go to his father's apartment and get his bike. Over the course of the film, Cyril does get his bike back, and he does find his father, but there's no catharsis. What emerges is something else. In this, The Kid With a Bike feels like real life.
The Dardenne brothers are known for their realistic, unfussy style, and their avoidance of psychological explanations for their characters and plot. In The Kid With a Bike, Cyril ends up meeting a hairdresser named Samantha (the fantastic and riveting Cécile de France), who becomes his weekend foster-parent before adopting him.
It is a chance encounter. Cyril keeps running away from the orphanage trying to find his father (and his bike). He goes to his father's apartment complex, ringing the doorbell, and despite the neighbor's annoyed insistence that that guy moved away, run along now, Cyril does not give up.
Constantly on the run from orphanage officials, he hides out in the crowded waiting room of a doctor's office in his father's building, where a scuffle ensues when the officials find him. Cyril, trying to resist his attackers, knocks a waiting woman to the ground and clings to her as men try to pull him off. In the middle of the chaos, we hear her say, "You can hold me, it's OK, just not so tight." It's a curious remark.
The Dardenne brothers do not linger on it, there are no huge closeups to indicate that this woman will be the other lead in the movie, the scene moves on, and Cyril is hauled back to the orphanage. But that strange comment remains in the air: You can hold me, it's OK, just not so tight. Who would say something like that after getting knocked over, out of the blue, by a scrappy teenager?
Samantha shows up at the orphanage a couple of days later. She had heard the boy screaming about his bike and, on her own, found the bike, bought it back, and brought it to him. She is a woman who wears tight leopard-skin tank tops, with bright-blue bra straps showing, and little denim skirts, and wedges. She has frosted tips in her hair. Her biceps bulge. Cyril grabs the bike back, and thanks her, and then rides it around her car, seemingly lost in a world of his own. As she drives away, he chases her car down, raps on the window, and asks if he can come stay with her on weekends. She says, "Sure. I'll call the orphanage and set it up. See you later."
It is never explained why she would do such a thing. The movie restrains itself this way, to brilliant effect.
Samantha is not a particularly warm or maternal person, but she is kind, straightforward,and open-minded. She helps Cyril track down his father, who is working in a restaurant a couple of towns away. In a devastating scene, Cyril and his father (played by Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier) meet. The father wants nothing to do with his son. He is starting a new life and he can't take care of a kid. He has left that other life behind.
He is breathtakingly open about this, and his shame about his own failure is eloquent in every movement, and every glance. It's so obvious that it's painful to watch. Cyril, showing the resilience of children, tries to make the encounter last, and tries to get his father to promise to call him. We can clearly see, from moment one, that this man is a shit, and does not deserve his son't love, and is lacking in essential human characteristics. But he's all Cyril's got.
Even after moving in with Samantha, young Cyril is always on the move. Running, climbing, pouncing on a kid who steals his bike, fighting, he moves fearlessly and immediately. There is no pause between impulse and action. This is the debut of young Thomas Doret and it is an extraordinary performance that doesn't feel like a performance.
He is not a sentimentalized child. He is antisocial, tough, angry, and withdrawn. These are his survival skills. He can get out of his own scrapes, because he can run fast, he bites people when they attack him, and he has his bike.
Samantha worries about him, she doesn't want him hanging around with the local hood who seems to take an interest in him, and she tries to get him to be interested in a sweet young schoolmate who wants to be his friend. Cyril does end up hanging out with the local hood, though, who calls him "Pitbull" (it is a term of endearment), and things start to go south in a way that feels awful and inevitable.
None of this is handed to us in a cliched way, and while we may think we know what will happen, having been fed a diet of cliche and easy catharsis in other movies, the Dardenne brothers are up to something else.
The Kid With a Bike is not a character study or a psychological melodrama. It is more of a fairy tale, complete with dark forest where bad things happen and where rules don't apply, and a Good Fairy who appears to draw from a depthless font of good-heartedness and empathy that never needs to be explained, because we all have that in us. We all could choose to be as good and open and uncomplicatedly kind as Samantha. She needs no motivation.
Her love for Cyril is urgent and worried, and we are right to worry for him, too. He is such a small figure, pedaling furiously through the streets, hair plastered to his forehead in sweat, his body strong and yet fragile, his impulses bursting out of him spontaneously (there is one terrifying moment when he jumps out of an amusement-park ride just as the ride starts to move).
He has at least chosen his guardian well. Samantha showing up with the bike at the orphanage was all he needed to know about her character, and is all we need to know as well. But larger societal forces are at work, and Cyril has been abandoned, and is on the cusp of being a young man. What the hell is going to happen to such a child?
Those questions are insistent, and weave their way through every frame of this superb movie. Kindness is not an easy thing to film. Benevolence is even more difficult to capture. The Dardenne brothers know that there are mischief-makers out there who wish us ill. They know that vulnerability is protected by certain kinds of people and exploited by others.
Childhood can be treacherous. But there are also mysteriously good people out there who will look out for you, and whose concern won't waver even when you are obnoxious and rebellious. Such things do not need to be explained.