It’s hard to peg down exactly what The Kid with a Bike is trying to say, but it is nevertheless compelling for most of its short runtime. It’s the latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The Belgian brothers are two-time Palme d’Or winners, and Bike was the Grand Prix winner last year. Their reputation and accolades precede them, but I have yet to see any of their previous films. I can offer no insight into how well this one stacks up to previous work, or how it compares thematically or even stylistically. However, if this were someone else’s debut film, I’d say it shows some promise but didn’t wow me in any way.
The straight ahead narrative begins with Cyril, the titular pre-teen, desperately searching for his father. We come to understand that Cyril has been put in some kind of foster care after his father abandoned him. Even when confronted with the blunt evidence, Cyril still needs to repeatedly call his father’s disconnected number, examine the empty apartment building, and track him down to have a chat like all is well. His determination borders on annoying, but is certainly understandable. Cyril’s mother is not mentioned, only alluded to with some subtle womb visuals like Cyril wrapped up in his bed sheets.
In these early scenes, first time actor Thomas Doret is strong as Cyril. He is very hard to read, as opposed to playing just “mad” or “sad.” By chance, Cyril runs into a hairdresser named Samantha (Cecile de France), and a little arbitrarily she becomes his weekend guardian. Samantha then tries to care for the unwanted boy while he makes a few bad decisions that threaten the whole arrangement. The plot has a whiff of Hallmark, but with real emotions, and talent. Still, I think I’m a tad too jaded to accept how smoothly things just happen. Every character’s motivation is subtle, almost to a fault.
It would have been nice if Doret’s performance opened up by the end, but it stays purposefully vague. It’s a case of realism (or naturalism) getting in the way of storytelling. The film actually has a few instances where it struggles between sticking to its naturalistic style and introducing more cinematic elements like violence. These scenes are meant to be powerful and heartbreaking, but they come off forced and kind of fake. Seemingly to counteract any of these misgivings, the film is sprinkled with a little Beethoven now and again to make sure you know that this is serious stuff.
I’m all for taking afterschool special clichés, side stepping the moralizing, and investing in actual characters and sentiment. And this film is very successful when it stays simple. There are just a couple of scenes that feel like they’re from a different movie, and they’re tacked on this movie to try to make a point, only I don’t know what that is. When the film reached the impromptu final act, I was engaged but left about as unmoved as Cyril’s disposition.