Even the most distinctive American filmmakers tend to prize versatility over consistency. After a few career-defining early films set in the neighborhoods of their youth, they usually wanted to branch out, try bigger budgets, and prove their range.
Not so for Belgian cineastes Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. After a decade and a half of steady output—with a film every three years, like clockwork—the brothers from Liège show no signs of quitting the genre they’ve practically invented for themselves. Call it the lower-class Belgian parable: stories of straying and redemption in a world of foster-kids, chômeurs, and immigrants, who are both as contemporary as the Wallonia they inhabit and as timeless as Aesop’s fables.
The Kid with a Bike (which won the Grand Prix at Cannes and premiers this Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles) is the Dardenne’s latest offering of social anomie and family-breakdown. But in a welcome change of mood, the film is also one of their lightest and most optimistic to date: offsetting the cruelty of parents with the kindness of strangers, and the fallout of trauma with the capacity for redemption and fresh starts in life, even at the ripe age of eleven.
Barely into double digits, the skinny blonde boy of the film’s title, Cyril (played with a volatile concoction of sullenness, temper, and brio by Thomas Doret) has been dealt a rough hand. His grandmother just died and the absent father he idolizes (played by Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier) is as deadbeat as a selfish doorknob, leaving the boy in the hands of social workers and even pawning his favorite bike for a quick buck. Such a blatant act of disownment sends Cyril into a cycle of denial, escape, and vengeful biting of the counselors who try to subdue him—a pattern that continues for just long enough that we start to lose patience as an audience, viewing the boy more as a problem than a victim.
Which, for a film about the breaking points of human sympathies, is exactly the point. To test the limits of unconditional love, the film brings Cyril a stroke of good luck in the form of Samantha, an angelic hairdresser (played by the stunningly fresh Cecile de France) who after a chance encounter takes an interest in his plight and offers to act as foster-mom on the weekends.
This benediction, and the surprising relationship that grows between the recalcitrant Cyril and his adoptive mother, brings the film its uplift, but also threatens to render it utterly predictable, like a made-for-TV melodrama. We know there will be sparks between Cyril and Samantha’s spoiled, feckless boyfriend. And we know that when a local gang-leader (a kind of proto-Eminem) pushes Cyril into criminality, his ties with Samantha, the only person who genuinely cares for him, will be pushed to the breaking point.
It’s to the Dardenne’ credit, then, that what in other hands could become treacly and synthetic cliché, manages to retain its authenticity and power. The Kid with a Bike, like their 2005 masterpiece The Child, leaves us speechless not through a conniving twist-ending or by shocking our sensibility, but by renewing the power of ancient moral truths. In a jaded, eye-rolling age, this is no easy task. Like cinema’s Aesops, the Dardenne brothers continue to tell simple stories whose climaxes are moral epiphanies for their characters and ourselves.