THE KID WITH A BIKE is another excellent film from Belgian brothers the Dardennes, and as a study of the awkward purgatory between childhood and adolescence it its right up there with its obvious forebears in KES and THE 400 BLOWS.
11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) spends his days in a children’s home, his mother dead and his father temporarily absent. When he discovers his bike has been apparently stolen, he escapes from the home and sets about searching for it. Whilst on the hunt, he meets a young woman who he forms an immediate and literal bond with (you’ll see) – with his dad still missing, she agrees to look after him on weekends, and thus begins a relationship that proves to be tumultuous but ultimately life-changing for them both.
The reason why THE KID WITH A BIKE is ultimately so successful is in its total disregard for sentimentality – so often films about childhood descend into saccharine, rose-tinted nostalgia that bears little resemblance to actual experience. The best ones, including the films already mentioned along with more recent examples like WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and THIS IS ENGLAND, aren’t afraid to show that the being a kid, particularly in the nascent adolescent stage, if filled with as much if not more ugliness and confusion than at any point in their adult lives.
Cyril is, essentially, a Bad Kid – he attacks and insults people with a frequency and a ferocity that is startling – but as played by Doret he is an immensely watchable screen presence. His tiny, fragile frame and angelic features play in stark contrast to his anti-social behaviour, and as the film progresses we see that, much like Antoine in THE 400 BLOWS, the Kid just can’t catch a break. And when he’s subjected to some intense emotional abuse in the film (which is often), his gruff exterior dissolves into hurt, uncomprehending confusion in a way that is utterly believable and totally heartbreaking .It’s in these moments that we see that instead of being an inherently bad seed, it’s more that there’s something about Cyril’s nature and background that makes his peers and elders assume he’s trouble: as a result, it’s suggested that his abrasive nature is ultimately the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Not exactly breaking new ground with this story, then, but it’s done with a level of sensitivity and piercing emotional directness that we’ve come to expect from the Dardennes that render it a powerful and rewarding experience. There’s also some delightful moments of humour throughout (including a highly unexpected series of nerdy video game references) and some well-judged supporting performances, including Cecile De France as Cyril’s would-be foster mother, Jérémie Renier as the father ill-suited to caring for him, and Fabrizio Rongione as a sleazy local hood.
Overall THE KID WITH A BIKE feels less powerful and affecting than something like THE CHILD, but then given the respective subject matter that’s perhaps understandable. One new element of film-making that the Dardennes explore for the first time in this film is non-diegetic music, with mixed results – the operatic strings occasionally feel out of place and instrusive with the film’s almost documentary like sense of realism. Also, although the film is a brisk 90 minutes the film has one too many false endings – however, the film’s final note is absolutely brilliant and the perfect way to conclude Cyril’s story.
THE KID WITH A BIKE is another brilliant piece of work from the Dardennes, and one that comfortably enters the pantheon of great films about childhood. Be sure to catch it when it goes on limited release early next year.