When I first saw Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ The Son about a year ago, it was with a sense of stifled appreciation. I couldn’t argue that it was not without merit, from the memorable sound of wood scraping together to the tight, focused long-takes, but I also found it a bit too obtuse, even a little constricting with its tight aesthetics, and although it was enlightening, it was a tough pill to swallow.
With The Kid with a Bike, that was not a problem. The admitted fairytale inspirations, the newfound freedom of the camera, and a brighter color palette made everything go down much smoother. The Kid with a Bike opens up to its audience, focusing on a child and the importance of parenthood—not generally, but specifically of motherhood and of fatherhood—where The Son focused on the absence of those. As such, The Kid with a Bike felt much closer to home.
It’s the simple story of Cyril, a 12 year old left to foster-care after his father gets low on money and his adventures as he copes with the resulting changes and his life with a new primary caretaker, Samantha (Cécile de France, who some may recognize from Clint Eastwood’s supernatural disaster drama Hereafter). At its core, The Kid with a Bike is a coming-of-age story, as little mysteries—Where is my bike? Where is my father? Where are my friends? Is this really what’s best for me?—add up to a sweet story of a boy who just doesn’t want to be alone anymore. His bike is a surrogate, good enough on a sunny day but of no value when the clouds are hanging overhead. He needs a parent to love him and take care of him.
Be warned though, sweet as this fruit is, you need to penetrate the sour surface first. A lot goes wrong for Cyril, who has his bike stolen and is surrounded by people who make only half-hearted attempts to understand him. But make no mistake, this film is far more The Red Balloon than Bicycle Thieves, andthat’s part of what makes the story so effective. In the end, everything isn’t perfect, but it’s understood that Cyril will cope as he enters the troublesome but ultimately liberating part of growth called “adolescence.”
How do we know this? It’s all in the details. Cyril runs almost everywhere he can, even chasing down on foot a kid who steals his bike on two occasions. He’s smart and resourceful, scaling walls when he needs a better vantage point, and always respectful when talking to strangers. The Dardennes auditioned about 100 kids for the part of Cyril, but with Thomas Doret, “it clicked right away.” And it clicks for us too, as Doret plays the part with exterior confidence and cheerfulness but still hints at a shy and doubtful interior. Child-centered films often live or die by the performance of their lead, and this one lets the optimism shine through even in the bleakest occasions.
Central to The Kid with a Bike as childhood is parenthood. Cyril’s father abandons him and he is left to a loving foster mother and, by extension, her boyfriend. Wes, a leader of the gang, is left to care for his dying grandmother, and another father/son pair has an important role that cannot be brought up here. Wisely, there is little backstory to the missing parents, as psychology would likely steep a universal allegory with too much specificity and sentimentality to remain effective, and while the film can be read as being far too traditional in an apparent favoring of motherhood over fatherhood, it’s far more evidently a treatise on the importance of loving parents, gender exempted.
Just as important in providing the correct tone are the aesthetics, and the Dardennes make the decision to (sparingly) use music, unusual for their films, which seems to work as both a coping device for Cyril and a way of keeping things from getting too bleak. But it’s cinematographer Alain Marcoen who liberates the picture, making it both accessible and sprightly when it could so easily feel unimportant and overwrought. Marcoen’s camera is prone to long tracking shots and hand-held explorations of Cyril’s world, which bring a wistful nature to the aesthetic that suggests the viewer’s own youth. Every (or almost every) shot employs deep-focus, bringing to life a whole world for Cyril to explore as the camera, usually in motion, continues to reveal new playgrounds.
It’s the small scope and the broad strokes that make The Kid with a Bike so powerful, proof that a small film does not have to be a slight one, too. Thanks to their noble intentions, The Dardennes have created a coming-of-age film lyrical and resonant, beautiful in a way quite unlike any other.