By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist May 14, 2011 at 8:04AM
All the books on parenting notwithstanding, it's always been pretty simple: kids not only want love, they need it. And in the latest from Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne that need is amplified into a mellifluous tone of desperation encapsulated in little Cyril (Thomas Doret) the titular 'kid with a bike.' When the film opens Cyril literally can't believe what he's hearing: left by his father in a children's home (it's hinted that his mother is dead), he calls the number he has for his Dad, only to hear that the line is no longer in service. He's told that his father has moved without leaving a forwarding address and, unconvinced, he leaves school one morning to go there himself where he not only finds an empty apartment but learns that his bike is gone as well. With the school counselors on his tail he ducks into a doctor's office and literally crashes into Samantha (Cecile de France, most recently seen by American audiences in Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter") and hangs on to her. Surprised, but not fazed, the first words she says to him are, "You can hold me, but not too tight."
Those generous words start their relationship and it's that spirit that Samantha gives to Cyril, something he's never had before. The next day, she returns to the children's home with the bike that she bought back for him from the father's neighbor who sold it to pay bills. Cyril is happy, but moreover, he's longing for attention, popping wheelies and trying desperately to impress Samantha. As she drives away, Cyril races after her and asks if she'll take him in as a foster parent on the weekends. With almost no hesitation she agrees, saying she has to run but will call later to arrange it, but Cyril, ever doubtful, says, "You say that you will, but you won't."
But she does, and not only that, she manages what no else could be bothered to do, and tracks down his father and arranges a meeting between the two. It's an awkward meeting that starts with him not even showing up, and when they do track him down, it ends with him telling Cyril in no uncertain terms, that he's not to contact him or call him again. "I was in the shit," he explains to Cyril about leaving him in a children's home, but as he admits to Samantha privately, he needs to start over.
And this is what Samantha willingly inherits. A child who is already seeing a psychologist, dealing with a dead mother and a father who tells him to leave him alone, and bouncing through his childhood uncertain of who to trust. Even when he asks Samantha why she took him in, she can't give a reason other than the simple fact that he asked her too. So Cyril tentatively accepts her generosity but leaves himself open to anyone who will give him attention. And in walks Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a slick-haired, silver-chained street tough who knows exactly how to butter up and then exploit young kids like Cyril for his own ends. He spends a long day with Cyril, playing video games, feeding him Fanta, cookies and, more importantly, compliments. He even tosses out the idea that he might adopt him. But he also enlists him into a scheme, and Cyril eager to please, agrees to do it. As the film moves into the final act, the sustained tone of Cyril's longing for love and a place where he can confidently lays his head, begins to change ever so slightly, as the focus shifts to Samantha who puts her relationships and even her own emotional stability on the line for Cyril. The narrative then moves back to the kid, and when we see him for the last time, he's turned into a survivor who can take anything that life dares to throw at him.
The Dardennes haven't changed up the formula too much with "The Kid With The Bike," though their natural style here features in a film that is much brighter than usual -- it was the first time they've shot a film during the summer. There is also a recurring musical cue that breaks up the film into very loose chapters. But for the most part it's another strong character study, and yes, it's at times absolutely wrenching. Doret and De France each give individually strong performances -- he with so much rage in his tired eyes and fatigued face, she with her ramrod-straight back and the strength of her visage which never flinches from the worst Cyril has to offer. But together, their chemistry is organic and instinctive, and wholly powerful. You understand exactly why Cyril remains loyal to Samantha, but more, De France conveys enough through her actions to make her reasons for taking in the young child understood, though never verbalized.
Will the Dardennes take home a third Palmes d'Or for "The Kid With The Bike"? We doubt it. The competition line-up is stacked hard this year and with two already under their belt, and with Cannes tending to award films that need the attention, we don't see it happening. It's nothing particularly groundbreaking for the directing pair, but that's hardly a criticism. Once again, they focus on a tough slice of life with a strong observational eye and close attention to detail. 'The kid' of the title may not quite be saved as the credits roll, but in Samantha he may have found for the first time, someone worth believing in and the journey to that realization is complex, beautiful and soulful. [B+]