By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin March 16, 2012 at 12:45AM
I became enamored of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s work when I saw their devastating film La Promesse in 1996. I’ve followed their careers ever since, and while I don’t love everything they do, when they hit the mark they create understated but deeply moving dramas that are uniquely their own. The Kid with a Bike is their latest effort and it is among their best.
Like most Dardenne films, this one takes place in their home town in Belgium and has an almost documentary-like feel. They never “comment” on the action, allowing us to respond as we choose.
From the opening moments, we are drawn into the life of a boy who is bursting with anger. We meet him as he determinedly, desperately tries to escape from an orphanage which seems to be quite pleasant, staffed by decent people. But all Cyril (Thomas Doret) wants is to get away and find his father, who deposited him there with the false promise of returning. Through sheer circumstance he meets a woman (Cécile de France) who runs a hair salon in town and takes an interest in him. She offers to let him stay with her on weekends, and shows him every possible kindness…but Cyril is incapable of responding to her, at first.
There is no shortage of incident, but it isn’t programmed like a Hollywood movie, and even at moments of high drama everything seems absolutely real. That is the Dardennes’ gift, which also extends to casting: leading lady de France is a rare instance of a “name” in one of their films, and the boy is truly remarkable. One scene, in which he physically expresses his enormous anger and frustration, got me audibly upset. (In the small but crucial role of his father they have cast Jérémie Renier, whom they discovered as a child for La Promesse and have used ever since, along with the man who played his father in that film, Olivier Gourmet.)
The Dardennes haven’t lacked for recognition in their career, but this past year The Kid with a Bike was passed over as Belgium’s official entry for the Academy Awards as Best Foreign Language Film in favor of Bullhead. While I respect that film, and its young writer-director, this one affected me more.