But as in "The Son" (2002), about a man (Olivier Gourmet) teaching carpentry to troubled youths in an unnamed Belgian city; or their breakout success, "La Promesse," (1996), about a teenager (Renier) who begins to see his father's exploitation of undocumented workers for what it is; or "L'Enfant" (2005), about young father Bruno (Renier), who sells his child to a black market adoption ring, the major part of the Dardennes' filmography isn't just stories of Belgium's modern underclass: it's the tale of lost boys of all ages. Cyril and his father are no different, always fleeing something. "The Kid with a Bike" is as concerned as any of these other films with the terrible momentum of human decisions, only it builds an aesthetic conceit — the bike — to mirror Cyril's psychic state.
I was also taken in, by its emotional vicissitudes. I was relieved — and I mean this mostly as a compliment — when the credits rolled. When a sweet-natured neighbor boy comes to see if Cyril wants to go the movies ("Come on, it's in 3-D," he says. "It'll be fun."), and Cyril refuses, preferring to hang out with a head of a local adolescent gang he's fallen in with, my heart broke. And yet, as the film rumbled along, every potential happy ending passing into memory, I began to feel too taken in. "The Kid with a Bike" builds an immense dread that something terrible is about to happen that becomes increasingly tiresome. Indeed, the final sequence plays out their vaunted "naturalism" a step too far, and came to seem cheaply manipulative rather than ambiguous or "real." Perhaps that was some of the relief I felt, or perhaps it was my sense that they had already used up their best ending.
It comes after Cyril returns to his father at the restaurant, and the handful of bars that comprise the score — the Dardennes' first use of non-diegetic music, as far as I know — quaver on the soundtrack once more. Cyril, bereft but increasingly aware that his real possibility for escape lay with Samantha now, hops on his bike once more. And he rides through the night, red jacket fluttering in the wind beside him, a lost boy trying to find his way home.
"The Kid with a Bike," "Rosetta," and La Promesse" are all available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection; "L'Enfant" is available on DVD from Amazon. Read TOH! contributor Matt Mueller's interview with Cécile de France here.