Life is teaching some lousy lessons to Cyril, an abandoned 11-year-old boy who can’t wrap his head around the fact that his single father has not only ditched him but, worse, sold his bicycle.
Cyril (Thomas Doret) is the pint-sized protagonist of “The Kid With a Bike,” an achingly heartfelt drama from directors-writers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian brothers with a string of impressive art house credits, including “La Promesse” and “L’Enfant.”
“Bike,” their latest — like their other films, it’s set in a world of working class hurt — won the grand jury prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
In interviews, the brothers have said that the film is a sort of fairy tale because, in the midst of the grimness that is Cyril’s life, a fairy godmother appears. She’s Samantha (Cécile De France), a hairdresser whom Cyril meets by chance.
Cyril, who’s living at a group home, begins to spend weekends with Samantha. She helps him to recover his bike and track down his father (Jérémie Renier, a Dardenne regular), who makes it brutally clear that he wants nothing to do with his son. Emotionally crushed and desperate for male attention, Cyril is an easy mark when a local gang leader tries to recruit him.
Will Cyril allow Samantha to help him make a better life or will he stumble toward the dark side?
The Dardennes, who make films with narratives that unfold in an almost documentary-like fashion, keep their focus on Cyril and his anger, frustration and desperate need for someone to care for, and about, him. In their young lead, they have found an actor with an intensity that doesn’t quit. Doret turns Cyril into a kinetic ball of restless energy, a kid whose every emotion is readily apparent, both on his tearful or angry face and in his defeated or defiant posture.
Just as the child hero does in any fairy tale, Cyril goes through scary patches and learns hard lessons during the course of “Bike.” But unlike in a fairy tale, no magic is required for a happy ending, only those sometimes even rarer commodities, a little human kindness, patience and understanding.
The Dardennes once again in “Bike” demonstrate that simple storytelling, focusing on characters and what happens to them and how they grow, retains its power to move us in profound ways.