Absent parents seem to have become a recurring theme in the Dardenne brothers’ film oeuvre, the directing duo who have become the most prominent purveyors of contemporary neorealist cinema in Europe. With The Kid with a Bike (Le Gamin au Vélo), the Brothers steer away from the grim tone of their past offerings such as The Child (2005), which also dealt with parenthood, and lighten up with a socially aware, humane narrative which nods to Vittorio De Sica and also fairy tale archetypes. Their latest film is a gorgeous, minimalist paean to compassion and redemption.
It tells the story of Cyril, a pre-pubescent teenager who has been abandoned in an orphanage by his father, played by Jérémie Renier, who also appeared in The Child. A troubled, rebellious child with a soft core, he believes his situation to be temporary, which it isn’t. He flees the orphanage to visit the flat where he used to live with his evasive dad in order to collect his bike, which becomes the film’s motif and the hinge on which the story hangs. As he flees his caretakers, he literally bumps into the hairdresser Samantha (played by the compelling Cécile de France). He goes back home without the bike, which was not in the flat anymore.
A few days later Samantha comes in for a visit, bringing the bike she had bought back for the boy. He asks her to be his weekend guardian and she agrees to it. The first weekend together proves to be a trial, but Samantha never wavers in her understanding and patience that dealing with Cyril requires. She’s a fairytale example of goodness and rectitude, without ever being pious or saint-like. She’s just a very kind, patient human being.
What follows is a process of redemption that Cyril will have to go through in order to grow and move on with his life without his father. Up to a point the viewer expects the directors to veer into ‘gritty realism’ territory but thankfully that doesn’t happen. The social, contextual data that wraps the film is only implied; the Dardennes are not interested in making a political critique of any kind. Instead, they produce something of a higher order: a delicate, heart-warming story of two people who connect in a seemingly random way but who change each other’s fate forever.
In The Kid with a Bike the directors perfected their brand of minimalist cinema with a plot so flawlessly wrought that it could be used a textbook example of how to write a film script. Visually the film looks beautiful too: slightly saturated colours enhance the mood, not to mention Cyril’s red T-shirt in a clear reference to Little Red Riding Hood, with a recruiting drug dealer standing in for the bad wolf. It’s a great device which makes the story lighter and universal. The Kid with a Bike is a good as realist cinema gets these days.