The Kid with a Bike (2011, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

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The cinema classic suggested by the title of this naturalistic, emotive but slight drama is of course De Sica’s similarly sentimental, childlike Bicycle Thieves — and allusions to it appear throughout — but the film whose shadow Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne cannot finally escape is much more precisely The 400 Blows. Because the latter is the finest film about childhood ever made, the directors here set themselves up on a losing battle. For although The Kid with a Bike captures some beautiful, realistic wisps of accurate detail about being young and needing someone, its story too often takes dramatic shortcuts for it to have nearly the resonance one hopes for.

The boy, Cyril (Thomas Doret), has been abandoned by a deadbeat father who reveals he can’t or doesn’t want to care for his son any longer — and has gone so far as to sell his precious bike, later recovered. By coincidence, Cyril hops into the arms of a saintly woman named Samantha (Cécile De France), the Fairy Godmother of the piece — she will transform Cyril’s life, in time and after some hiccups, into a loved and fulfilled existence, that of which he has no conception. Initially he’s confused and wanders, in rather pat afterschool-special fashion, into the realm of the Wrong Element in the form of hoodlum boys who try to steal the constantly-in-peril bicycle again only to have their ringleader take a shine to him and invite him in to play Playstation, then to, uh, assault a newspaperman. But into the surrogate parentage and arms of Samantha he’ll finally fall again, the message of redemption clear.

But whose redemption, we’re led to wonder? Though it’s Cyril who makes the change, in true screenwriterly fashion, Samantha is the fascinating character, and De France’s is clearly the performance of the picture — complex, strong, sophisticated, and motherly in an unconventional manner we don’t often see at the movies. Her desire to help and to enrich a life (and in the end to enrich her own) is obvious, but we seldom are permitted a serious glimpse of her inner life. This sounds like a criticism, but it’s not — it’s the most deft element of this film, in fact, that we have such a strong impression of Samantha despite only ever seeing her, with very few exceptions, through the eyes of the wily young boy, with whom the film begins and ends. An understandably sullen but sometimes aggressively bratty kid, Cyril represents all of the trials of parenthood full-scale, yet Samantha is without hesitation in her sacrifices. The greatest compliment we can pay to the Dardennes and to De France is: we never question that. Of course she will take care of Cyril, we think. Because we trust her as he does, and that’s remarkable.

There is perhaps some balletic beauty to this film that I am not quite capable of seeing, as is the case with Bicycle Thieves, a film I desperately wish I could love but do not. For me, the slate is too empty in both films: there’s too little that’s bent or barbed or witty about its perception of growing up, which is all so direct and straightforward and sells itself on the eye-to-eye unspoken communications between children and adults that, I have to assume, say more to those with children than those without. I can imagine that this film’s quiet statements about the constant cheek-turning of raising kids will speak deeply to someone who holds that responsibility, much as the burden suddenly shared between the father and son at the close of Bicycle Thieves could cause open weeping from a person aware of just what it means to let your own child down. Me, I can’t get away from realizing how incapable I personally would be of ever making these kinds of sacrifices to someone naturally so ungrateful; and rather than being won over by the sentiment, I intellectualize it.

Besides that, childhood in these films bears no resemblance to what I remember, and that says nothing about my own upbringing — The 400 Blows doesn’t capture my actual adolescent experience either, yet every emotion in every sequence rings true — but rather about the perspective with which they’re approaching the life of the young boy. As in many of Steven Spielberg’s films, as much as they rely on a conceit of capturing the secret world of a child, they’re unmistakably casting their glances down from the eye of an adult viewer. All of the pauses and emotional beats are conceived and directed from that perspective. And while the Dardennes have admitted to being inspired by fairy tales and children’s literature in writing the film, it’s still difficult to swallow the level to which they’ve bound themselves here to a warped movie world in which every adult male, beginning but not ending with Cyril’s father, is self-interested and vile — the very traits Cyril turns away from in his subtle, well-handled final transition (biking away from a conflict instead of picking a fight) — and everything must fall away and leave us with merely Cyril and Samantha, with endless hope for the future. That’s very sweet and I can see why it would speak to many, but I don’t feel as if something nearly so genuine or telling has been crafted here. It’s finally a feel-good picture, with all the limitations that entails.

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