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The Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne always make movies about interesting characters, and The Kid with a Bike is no exception.

Where’s Papa?

Cyril looks for his father... any father
Cyril looks for his father... any father

Cyril (Thomas Doret) lives at an orphanage. He is maybe 11 or 12, and he is rebelliously persistent in trying to track down his father, who recently left his apartment without a forwarding address. Cyril has nobody to visit on the weekends anymore, and worst of all, he no longer has his bike. Finding his father is the most important thing in Cyril’s life. If that means running away from school, or asking a stranger for help getting away on weekends, so be it.

A kind woman, Samantha (Cécile De France), comes into Cyril’s life while he’s trying to run away from the school authorities. He grabs her, at random, in a waiting room. A few days after the incident she turns up at the orphanage. She had seen Cyril’s bike for sale and bought it back. She tracked him down brought him his bike.

Now mobile, and with permission to visit Samantha on weekends, Cyril is able to look for his father. He makes a certain discovery — I won’t say much more — that changes his goal but not his insatiable drive. The movie feels like it won’t be resolved until Cyril finally finds what he’s looking for, and can accept that he has found it.

Another Son

The Kid with a Bike played at festivals and my friends who saw it talked about whether Cyril should have “done it,” leaving the act vague so as not to spoil the movie for those of us who hadn’t seen it. Indeed there is one scene that jumps out at about the two-thirds mark. But to me, “it” was just the next natural step in Cyril’s heedless quest for a father figure. His mistake, though grievous, seems entirely plausible for someone in his situation. We’re always rooting for Cyril, even when his childish temper and impatience make him not so likeable.

The Son, also by the Dardenne brothers, is one of my very favorite movies, and The Kid with a Bike is surprisingly similar. In both, a boy is looking for a father figure. In both, strong antagonism is working against the relationship. And in all of the movies from the Dardennes that I’ve seen, they have managed to convey conflicted, ambivalent emotions — without ever spelling things out directly. That’s not so surprising, really — after all which of us can ever really do justice to our strongest emotions with words? Nevertheless, a lot of movies overexplain. The Dardennes are instead keen observers of their characters (a bit like Mike Leigh), whose lives seem to play out naturally in front of the cameras.

The visual style is documentary. The camera isn’t as close to the characters as it was in The Son, but The Kid with a Bike still feels handheld and free. One surprise is that the Dardennes use music cues — only a few times — on the soundtrack to convey the joy of riding a bike. (They almost never use extradiegetic music.)

The Kid with a Bike didn’t strike me as quite the masterpiece that The Son is. But it’s another strong film from a pair of brothers who love their characters, even as they put them through difficult dramatic tribulations.