The Kid With a Bike

The Kid With a Bike is a heartbreaking, gripping, ultimately unsettling, but very satisfying film—an odd jumble of adjectives, I know, but the Dardenne brothers of Belgium routinely provoke these dissonances in the works they jointly write and direct. Their earlier films (The Child, The Son, La Promesse, among others) are notoriously hard to warm to: The characters are obstinate, the pace slides and rambles. The Kid With a Bike, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, is sunnier, more kinetic, but it, too, disrupts assumptions, snaps you in unexpected directions: just like life.

It’s about an 11-year-old at a state-run boys’ home—a violence-prone ball of energy—who learns his father hasn’t merely dropped him off but abandoned him and sold his precious bike besides. He runs away, sneaks into his old apartment building for signs of any good news, gets chased into a doctor’s office, where he smacks into a woman in the waiting room, and clutches her for dear life, a woman who eventually comes to adopt him, almost as an act of fate, if not faith. There’s Christian iconography in this image—the Dardennes have called it “Pieta in reverse”—and while the film isn’t overtly religious, it is about the need for kindness, and its mystery, in a world cluttered with weakness and mendacity. The films of Bresson and DeSica are strong influences (some have dubbed the Dardennes’ style “Flemish realism”), but the brothers have a lighter touch and a fiercer flair. one of the Blu-ray’s extra features, they describe their long rehearsals with the actors before the shooting begins, and the payoff is obvious. Thomas Doret, who makes his film debut as the kid, is utterly convincing in his portraits of anger, glee, despair, confusion, and innocence: It’s as astonishing as any child-actor’s performance I’ve seen. Cécile de France, a movie star in Europe, is no less credible as the ordinary (if angelic) hairdresser who comes to the boy’s rescue for reasons not quite clear, perhaps even to herself. (One of the film’s many strengths is that it offers no pat motivations.)

The Dardennes also have a compelling visual sense: a documentary feel in the handheld jitteriness and the drabness of the village, but the colors scream pastel; they remind you that we’re seeing this world through the sensations of a child. And the Criterion Blu-ray, while hardly eye candy, gets this dissonant vision just right.

Studio: Criterion Collection, 2011
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio Format: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Length: 87 mins.
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Directors: Jean-Pierre, Luc Dardenne
Starring: Thomas Doret, Cécile de France, Jérémie Renier