Heavy subject matter, nostalgia, naturalism: let’s just say we know what to expect when we see a French film about little kids. Expect references by the dozen, nods to the New Wave which will make film enthusiasts cream their pants. Expect a whimsical climax, and a child actor whose performance will be called ‘raw’ and ‘bracing’ and ‘natural’. But while there’s not much to say for The Kid With a Bike, the latest installment by the Dardenne Brothers, there’s still less to say against it. The story is too familiar to force any kind of epiphany out of us–one could say it’s been done before and better, and derives most of its charm from combining the best elements of The 400 Blows and Bicycle Thieves.
The story of Kid with a Bike revolves around a young boy, more or less abandoned, who has to learn morality early. He has to choose between a male figure of worship: the dealer in a neighborhood gang, and a female figure of protection: his foster mother, whom he found in a hospital waiting room on one of his many escape runs from the foster center where he’s been left by his errant father.
When the film is moving, which it is, it’s moving in an average way. The way you’d expect to be moved by a story about abandonment. What’s good is Thomas Doret as the ‘Kid’. His performance ranks among the Mary Badhams and Jean-Pierre Leauds of old, but this is maybe not so much to Doret’s credit as an actor as to his role as a child. Children possess that faculty which is both contrary to and ideal for an actor. Doret doesn’t know any other role to play, as an actor his experience is so limited–so how could he help but play the role of a child exquisitely? And how could the audience help but project, on the blank slate of Doret’s face, the part of their own childhood that was lonely, melancholy, and restless?
The film’s ending — a near-fatal encounter — is surprising, if only because it ends up being of no consequence whatsoever. It saves the film from being a mere cause-and-effect drama, and for that we should be grateful.