The films of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers are defined by their short, sharp shocks of compassion and wisdom. Their stories are as direct and as stripped of fat as their titles (‘The Son’, ‘The Child’) and are always contemporary tales, shot in a frank, realist style with energetic, unfussy forward momentum. They exert a strong moral kick without overplaying any obvious themes.
No wonder they are often called parables or fairy tales, although it’s their pared-down clarity that wins them these tags, rather than any sense of the religious or mythical.As ever, ‘The Kid with a Bike’ lands us in Seraing, the suburb of the Belgian city of Liège that has become home to the Dardennes’ portraits of the marginalised. Here the kid is Cyril (Thomas Doret), a bruised 11-year-old desperate to find the dad who has abandoned him to social services. The locals call him ‘pitbull’, but within Cyril is a puppy desperate for attention and eager to please, even if it means misplacing his loyalty in his errant father or a local crook. He’s a fascinating character, instantly recognisable, and brought to life with near heartbreaking vulnerability by Doret.
As Cyril dashes about the neighbourhood (he’s constantly running and cycling, as if the world is threatening to leave him behind), he falls into the protective arms of a hairdresser, Samantha (Cécile de France). Together, they encounter the boy’s father (Jérémie Renier), who makes it depressingly clear he doesn’t want to know his son. Samantha agrees to foster Cyril, but soon a false friendship with an older boy threatens to throw him off the rails for good.´
The innocence of children and their capacity for good in a corrupting adult world are interests to which the Dardennes keep returning, and they are embraced incredibly movingly here, especially in the film’s tense final minutes. Cyril surprises us all by displaying impressive grace and maturity after committing a crime, and at the same time we see how an adult is prepared to act shoddily in the same context. The man in question is far more respectable on the surface than Cyril’s feckless dad (a target too easy for the judgement of such a level-headed film). And the man’s behaviour raises the film’s concern with fathers and sons above issues of poverty or education, taking it to a more interesting, universal moral plane.
The Dardennes finally afford huge dignity and strength to Cyril. They also leave us with a big-hearted film far more complex than its brisk simplicity may at first suggest. You think you know what you’re getting with a Dardennes film – and then they give you a whole lot more.