The Kid with a Bike: Excellent Portrait, Weak Story

THE KID WITH A BIKE (Le gamin au vélo) 2011
Directed and written by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Les Films du Fleuve, 87 mins. PG-13
* * *

There are long sequences in The Kid with the Bike in which we see the namesake character peddling furiously across Liėge, Belgium. We theorize that he’s searching for the back-story of the adults in this story.

That sounds more negative than is intended. This is an excellent character study of a distressed 12-year-old boy named Cyril (Thomas Doret). The problem is that we never learn much about anybody’s motives but his. We meet Cyril in a state-run boarding school where he’d ended up–we don’t know how–because his father has abandoned him. Cyril, not surprisingly, refuses to believe his father would do such a thing, and escapes from his minders to find his dad and his treasured black bicycle. He’s not hard to find and is easily tracked down at the empty, torn-wallpaper apartment where he once lived with his father and recently deceased grandmother.

Then the logic begins to weave toward the “say what?” end of the spectrum.  Cyril bolts from his guardians one final time and ducks into a clinic in an attempt to elude them. When he’s found, he clamps onto one of the patients, an attractive young hairdresser named Samantha (Cécile de France) and must be pried loose from her body. Such an event would shake most of us to the core, but when Cyril begs Samantha to let him live with her on the weekends, she agrees to consider his request. A few days later she shows up at his school having bought his bicycle from the man to whom his father sold it before leaving town. Thus is launched what will strike most viewers as a highly improbable foster family situation.

Doret is terrific as Cyril–the perfect blend of sullenness, impulsiveness, and deep seated hurt that one would expect from a traumatized preadolescent. His face is etched with his warring emotions–on one hand he’s on the verge of uncontrollable weeping; on the other he’s ready to strike out in fury from the incomprehensible rage that roils within. We understand perfectly why we wants Samantha to care for him, but is more attracted to the town’s local bad boy, Wes,  (Egon DiMateo) who recruits young boys to do his criminal dirty work. We also easily grasp the symbolism of Cyril’s bike–his ticket to freedom to be sure, but also a Zen-like escape into physical and mental oblivion on which he peddles away his anguish.

Like many stylish European films, this one allows the camera to linger on objects, faces, and scenes far longer than most American directors would dare. Those raised on f/x and non-stop action will find the pacing languid and will long for something “to happen.” Things do happen, but they take their time. That’s appropriate for the film’s subject: a probe of young Cyril’s psyche. What is far more problematic is the Dardenne brothers’ thin development of everybody else that populates this film. We meet Cyril’s father, for instance, but we never learn why he abandoned his son or why he thought that was socially acceptable. Nor is Cyril’s mother even mentioned. Much more perplexing is Samantha. De France does a great job with the character and she needs to, as she’s given nothing to explain her motives. Why would she take in such a damaged kid? Is she a liberal do-gooder? A repressed social worker? A sucker for a sob story? Does the kid strike some sublimated maternal instinct? Would that the other characters have half the depth of Cyril.

I’m sure that the Dardennes purposely left these issues vague so that we’d concentrate on Cyril. We do, but the experience feels oddly empty in the end. The Kid with a Bike garnered quite a few film festival prizes and won the coveted Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011. We would suggest, though, that it was often nominated but seldom victorious because it is, in the end, a classic “small” film.  As a touching profile of a wounded young boy it’s first rate. Just don’t expect path breaking filmmaking, a gripping narrative, or a lesson in logic. 

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