Emotionally full to bursting, "The Kid With a Bike"comes from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgian brothers and masters of poetic realism whose movies, as they unfold, have the knack of fooling an audience that the artistry must've been easy to achieve. But think about it. How many so-called slices of life have ended up lifeless — death by earnestness — on screen?
The Dardennes' latest is one of their best, a memorable cinematic portrait of troubled youth and soul-saving charity.
The boy at the story's center is Cyril, an 11-year-old recently given up to a state-run home by his unreliable father. The bike, which falls in and out of Cyril's hands with painful regularity, is a remnant of his old life, a chimerical symbol of the love he seeks from his abandoning parent.
Escaping from the orphans' home, Cyril literally runs into his savior: a hairdresser who instinctively becomes the boy's protector and adoptive guardian. It's a lucky break for Cyril, but "The Kid With a Bike" manages to pack a stunning amount of incident, often harsh, into its 87 minutes. The boy, desperate for father figures, falls in with a criminal element. Combustible, frightened, stoic and violent by turns, Cyril at one point reaches a panicked state in which he wields a knife against the hairdresser. It's not a showcase moment; what keeps this encounter out of easy melodrama — what keeps the film itself above easy melodrama — is the ease and dispatch with which the Dardennes zing in and out of Cyril's complicated, painful emotions.
I think the Dardennes overpack the final 10 minutes of this highly compressed experience. But their touch with actors young and old is wonderfully assured. As Cyril, Thomas Doret does nothing to consciously break your heart or yank on your sympathies; he simply embodies a wary, disappointed but not hopeless preteen state of mind, in motion. (The fact that he's always on his bike, when he has it in his life, gives the film solid forward momentum.)
The top-billed performer is Cecile de France (known to American audiences for her work in Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" opposite Matt Damon). You could argue the character of Samantha, the hairdresser who makes faith, hope and charity look as easy as breathing and as vibrant as sunshine, is more archetype than three-dimensional human being. Yet in the confines of this story, which the Dardennes have described as a fairy tale, she's superb. Dardenne regular Jeremie Renier portrays the father, and there's a sublime moment of connection between Samantha and this lost, bitter soul, where she forces him to tell Cyril the truth about whether or not they'll be seeing each other again.
This is the first film the Dardennes shot in the summertime. Excellent choice of seasons. I'm not sure I could've handled Cyril's travails without it, or without de France's smile.
'The Kid With a Bike' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, violence, brief language, and smoking)
Running time: 1:27; in French with English subtitles