If The Kid with a Bike were an English language film, chances are it would be structured so that the title character wouldn’t find his father until the end, at which point there would be some kind of emotional climax and narrative resolution. But this French-speaking drama is directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and his brother, Luc, who are known for stark, naturalistic films devoid of sentiment. Through their telling of The Kid with a Bike, the title character finds his father within the first third, at which point it’s made abundantly clear that the latter wants absolutely nothing to do with the former. The kid must therefore navigate the rest of the film in search of an entirely different emotional climax – assuming that there is one to find. Even if there is, it will not present itself in a moment of sweeping melodrama.
The kid’s name is Cyril (Thomas Doret), a troubled eleven-year-old boy in foster care. He refuses to believe that his father would simply abandon him, despite the fact that he has never called, visited, or even lived up to his promise of returning for him after only one month. In the opening scene, Cyril repeatedly dials the number to their old apartment with frantic determination. He gets the same answer: A few beeps, and an automated voice telling him the number has been disconnected. Blind to the reality of the situation, Cyril escapes and returns to the apartment. Sure enough, every room is empty. In fact, they have been empty for an entire month. Worse still, Cyril’s beloved bicycle has gone missing. He was sure his father would have given it to him.
By pure chance, he runs into a hairdresser named Samantha (Cécile de France), who later returns the bike to Cyril. She tells him it was sold to her by someone who bought it from Cyril’s father. Cyril dismisses the idea. The bike was obviously stolen. He goes on believing this until he sees a personal ad written by his father taped to the window of a mechanic’s garage. Yes, he was looking to sell his son’s bike. Despite his growing disillusionment, Cyril has found a place in the life of Samantha, who agrees to be his foster parent on weekends. The two begin a citywide search for his father, Guy (Jérémie Renier), who’s eventually found at a restaurant working as a cook. Cyril is eager to pick up where they left off. Guy is anything but. He gives the usual excuses about money, time, and simply being unable. As if any reason would suffice. He tells his son, calmly but firmly, to never try and see him again.
Cyril’s disillusionment has now devolved into total heartbreak. After successfully fighting off a teen who tried to steal his bike, he soon finds himself in the company of a thug named Wes, known locally as The Dealer (Egon Di Mateo). He takes Cyril under his wing. We get a brief look at Wes’ difficult personal life – a bedridden grandmother who needs constant care, an unseen grandfather who in all likelihood spends his time away from home at a bar – although that doesn’t make the attention he gives to Cyril any less disquieting. Our suspicions are eventually confirmed, although I will not reveal why, as it involves a sequence of events too intertwined with the film’s final scenes. Let it suffice to say that Wes is indeed trouble, and that Samantha was absolutely correct in urging Cyril to stay away from him.
Cyril is a product of his own rotten luck, a wayward boy who has been conditioned to distrust adults or anyone in a position of authority. He does choose to be with Samantha, but only because she unreservedly returned him his bike; he remains unmindful of the love and support she’s so clearly giving him, even after she chooses him over her boyfriend. Her reasons for taking him in are never given, a fact that’s sure to divide audiences. I myself remain torn over it. The part of me that responds well to Americanized sentiment and concrete explanations wanted a psychological profile, a dip into the well from which her maternal instincts spring. The other part of me, the one that appreciates enigmatic characters and situations, understands that an explanation isn’t necessary. The fact that she’s drawn towards Cyril and is driven to help him should be enough.
In its own low key, unemotional way, the film sends a rather beautiful message: You can move forward with your life if you learn to let go of anger and resentment. The trick is to hear it without the aid of a cinematic filter. There will be no large orchestral swells, no slow motion shots of Cyril running into Samantha’s arms, no tearful admissions of love. There’s only the sense that a chapter has ended, and one need only to turn the page. There’s also the feeling that a fresh start is indeed possible, sometimes (perhaps even especially) after a traumatic event that could easily have been avoided. If anyone tells you that The Kid with a Bike is a father/son story, smile politely and tactfully inform him or her that they either weren’t paying attention or lied about having seen it.
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