Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Kid with a Bike

The films of writer-director brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne usually pivot on a tough moral choice forced on the main character, whose life probably was no bed of roses to begin with. A Chinese box of those moral choices is nested within their latest, The Kid With a Bike, but the dilemma at the core belongs to the title character. Cyril (Thomas Doret) has to make the most essential moral choice of all: whether to live a good life or a bad one.

But this is no psychological drama. Instead, it’s a clear-eyed, almost forensic, yet immensely moving study of cause and effect in which everything hinges on what people do, not what they say.

Just 11 years old and consumed with longing for the father who left him at a state-run orphanage with a promise that it was only temporary, Cyril is a child made feral by abandonment. On the move from the start, he acts purely on instinct, running, darting, skinnying up trees and over fences, and pedaling his beloved bike (once he’s recovered it, with the help of a kind stranger) in search of his father, Guy (Jérémie Renier). Doret is a brown belt in karate, and his wiry, seemingly tireless body is as eloquent as his guarded but expressive face.

The plot moves with the same fluidity as Cyril, one event leading to another with a logic that emerges only in retrospect. Watching the film, you simply feel as if you’re watching Cyril’s life unfold, unpredictable, volatile, and full of potential, both good and bad. More than once, things appear to be heading toward almost unbearable horror. The Dardennes always pull back from the brink of tragedy, but very bad things do happen. Along with the awareness of the much worse possibilities that shadow this matter-of-factly moral story, those dark deeds keep reminding us that every action has a consequence.

Guy also haunts the film, though he doesn’t get much screen time. That’s mostly because his absence is the dominant fact that has warped Cyril’s life, but it helps that Renier etches his character so precisely. For those who saw the actor as the son forced to come to terms with his father’s moral failings in the Dardennes’ The Promise, or as a deadbeat dad who eventually reclaims the son he abandoned in The Child, his performance carries echoes of other fraught father-son relationships, but you don’t have to have seen any other Dardenne movies to appreciate how deftly Renier uncovers the callous narcissism and cowardly distaste for unpleasant scenes that motivates his disowning of his child.

Wild with desperation, the son he ditched can be dangerous. Cyril brushes off the kindnesses of strangers like so many gnats, so focused on his absent father that he can barely see anyone else. Luckily for him, Samantha (Cécile de France), the kind stranger who returns his bike, catches him in her strong arms and doesn’t let go when he runs into her—literally—by chance.

The waves of classical music that wash over Cyril now and then as he rushes toward or away from another loaded encounter are another sign of hope. They’re an unusual touch for the Dardennes, who usually keep their unobtrusively beautiful, naturalistic movies free of anything other than indigenous sounds. But the music works as organically as everything else, functioning as an expression of the boy’s roiling emotions and a promise of healing to come.

Like Cyril, Samantha acts on instinct. She may not understand why she responds so strongly to this lost boy’s grief and need that she agrees to let him stay with her on weekends (when he asks why she took him in, she simply say: “I don’t know”), but she always knows just how to treat him. Absorbing his rebellious angst with unflappable strength, she just keeps offering the guidance, attention, and love that he needs—and the patience to let him find his way to it.

Doret and the filmmakers make Cyril’s anguish so concrete that it’s easy to understand why Samantha would respond to it. It may be harder to imagine taking in a troubled boy so completely and unquestioningly, since most of us are not capable of that kind of behavior. But, just as there are parents who abandon their children, there are also people who take in other people’s children and make them their own.

For an audience accustomed to mainstream movies that exaggerate the good side of human nature and art-house indies that exaggerate the bad, the Dardenne brothers’ work stands out precisely because it aspires to be ordinary. The purely life-sized, resolutely realistic portraits in The Kid with a Bike illustrate both sides of our nature.

Written for TimeOff

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