The Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne never chart an easy path for their characters, and they certainly haven't for 11-year-old Cyril in "The Kid With a Bike." Even the title works to set the mood — the phrase is clipped, the words sound hard, suggesting the boy in question is a tough one, relentlessly on the move. So it's a surprising delight to find they've spun such a wonderfully human and humane a story about one of those lost-and-found children who tend to slip through society's not-so-safe safety nets.
As the film opens, Cyril (Thomas Doret) is a month into his stay at a state-run boys home where his unemployed father (Jeremie Renier) left him. He's impatient and angry, unwilling to accept that the phone at his father's apartment has been disconnected or that the flat is vacant, as the super has told him more than once.
The youngster becomes convinced that the key to everything is finding his bike, that it will help him put his life back right. In a sense it does — he runs away to retrieve it and when discovered, he literally grabs on to a stranger to keep the authorities from taking him back to the boys home. Samantha (Cecile de France) is the stranger, and that encounter shapes the film, the well-deserved winner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival last year.
Everything about Cyril's situation is uncertain, and that sensibility saturates the movie so completely that it makes everything that follows — the good things especially — as hard for us to trust in as they are for the boy. Somehow Samantha finds Cyril's bike, a tentative bond is forged and soon she is taking him for the weekends. But like the potholes that pock the streets Cyril races around on, it's a bumpy ride. It is impossible to guess exactly where things are headed — the film, Cyril's life or his tie to Samantha.
The ambiguity is refreshing. And despite the complicated emotional story at the center of this film, the Dardennes, who wrote and directed, have opted to handle it all with a minimalist narrative style. Only a little of Cyril's back story is sketched in. Nothing of what is driving Samantha is revealed. Conversations are concise, much is left unsaid. Essentially, we're asked to accept that this is how things are going to unfold as Cyril figures out whom he can trust and whom he cannot — and that includes his father and the local tough (Egon Di Mateo) who recruits the youngster into his gang.
Doret is a lean, sinewy kid, which works to create the kind of coiled intensity of an angry young boy. The actor is equally good at telegraphing Cyril's vulnerability in the hesitation when anyone reaches out to him and the defenses he's developed to protect himself from rejection — his face shuts down and his fists strike any time he's feeling threatened, which is often. De France's Samantha is the calm in the face of that storm, and the actress ("Hereafter") infuses her character with far more stability than sentimentality in a way that allows Cyril to begin to trust.
For all the heavy issues facing Cyril and Samantha, the film itself has a lightness to it. The music, which usually doesn't make it into Dardenne films in a significant way, is airy, wrapping key moments in hopefulness. The landscape Cyril powers through — both city and country — is open and awash with color with the cinematography by Alain Marcoen, who has shot most of the Dardennes' films. It all works to make the moments feel as rich with possibilities as plagued by problems.
The Dardennes have a way of collapsing the human condition into dark grace notes of action and reaction, as if they are creating a series of tests for their characters to pass or fail — the daughter dealing with an alcoholic mother in "Rosetta," the homeless teen in "Le Fils," the baby in "L'enfant," whose birth is celebrated for the extra welfare money it means. It is an exceptionally fine body of work the filmmakers have created, one in which "The Kid With a Bike" is sure to find a home.