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Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
Near the beginning of The Kid with a Bike (Dirs. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne), there’s a shot of 12-year-old Cyril Catoul (Thomas Doret) with a dead-stare strain on his face revealing him both determined and devastated as he ascends in an elevator to his single father’s former apartment. As it turns out, he has lost both his father and his bike, and he’s desperate to get them back.
It was a shot that jolted me emotionally and which demonstrated two points that would persist throughout the film: first, that the Dardennes know how to be affecting without a trace of contrivance, and second, that Thomas Doret is quite the young actor. During the first act, Cyril is a red blur (a formal use of color by the Dardennes that’s as effective as it is memorable), frantically hopeful that his father has only left him for a time. Yet, as his search becomes more revealing, Cyril’s child-like faith in his father begins to erode, and so too does the young boy’s sense of self-worth.
Despite Cyril’s initial persistence, what his caretakers allow him to discover is that his father and bike are nowhere to be found. In fact, Cyril later discovers that his father has sold his bike. But on the day that Cyril sneaks off to his father’s abandoned apartment, Cyril clings to the closest comfort he can find with his foster caretakers on his trail. That immediate comfort happens to be a young woman named Samantha (the lovely Cécile de France).
One morning, while Cyril is hiding under his bedding and feeling the weight of his abandonment, he receives an unexpected visitor, and she brings a special gift. Clearly feeling burdened for the boy’s plight, Samantha bought back Cyril’s bike. The act of kindness endears Samantha to Cyril, and he almost instinctively asks her to take him in with her on the weekends. Out of sheer grace, Samantha invites Cyril into her life and care. Samantha even helps Cyril find his father, who persists in feeding his son false hope while confiding in Samantha that he has no intention of reuniting with his son. Cyril’s new friend is gracious, but not cheaply so; Samantha refuses to be an accomplice in allowing Cyril to remain ignorantly hopeful.
Upon discovering that his father has abandoned him for good, the boy’s fragile state is never more heart-wrenching and revealing than when he beats his head against the car door. The Dardennes’ ability to capture Cyril’s gamut of emotions — in this case, the sharp prickle of inadequacy — in ever so subtle ways is consistently superb. If the film’s first act is a testament to the centrality of the father figure to a young child’s existence, then the second act becomes a battle for Cyril’s soul between Samantha and a local bully named Wes (Egon Di Mateo), who is well-known for his local drug dealing, assault, and thievery.
In terms of this battle for Cyril’s soul, it’s indicative the role that Cyril’s bike plays in the film. What his father sold and Samantha returned to him, Wes offers to fix after he lures Cyril into his schemes. Where Samantha feels compassion for Cyril, Wes sees an opportunity to manipulate a vulnerable boy into a subservient gang member. Seeing pent up anger in the boy, Wes hopes to leverage his rage for his own ends; Cyril believes he’s found a male figure who thinks highly of him and wishes to include him in his plans, however awful those plans may be. But after Cyril commits a robbery and assault on a father and son, he quickly recognizes the danger that he’s in. Wes’ motives become to Cyril a clear contrast with Samantha’s persistent patience and love in spite of Cyril’s regular outbursts and insecurities. While Wes is willing to sacrifice Cyril for his own good, Samantha is willing to sacrifice herself, and even another relationship, for Cyril’s good.
The brothers Dardenne employ their aesthetic realism, yet it’s not the kind of realism that’s devoid of mystery. Take, for instance, two oddities that enamor Cyril once he is under Samantha’s care. The first is Cyril’s desperate fascination with water. The second is the scene where Cyril seems comforted by Samantha’s “warm breath”, an example of a subtle, spiritual mysteriousness in the film. Subtle though these instances may be, it seems clear that Cyril is haunted to find new life, and that Samantha is just the embodiment of love to breathe it into his. There’s a compassionate spirit that pervades the film by virtue of its perseverance, seemingly signaled amidst the silence by rises of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5.
Aided by the newfound security of Samantha’s gracious love in his life, Cyril is now a force of calm endurance, able to transcend problems that might entangle even the most intact father-son relationships. Near the end of the film, it’s apparent that Cyril’s willing to take a new ride with new gears. Thanks to Samantha, he’s been adopted into the kind of family guided by love which will never leave nor forsake. And, therefore, he doesn’t have to pedal fast only to go a shorter distance.
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