Monday, April 23, 2012

The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo)

THE KID WITH A BIKE (LE GAMIN AU VÉLO) (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2011)

Eleven-year-old Cyril Catoul (Thomas Doret) wants two things: to be with his father and to get his bicycle.  In THE KID WITH A BIKE he’s better off investing his emotional attachment with the vehicle.

Cyril’s father Guy (Jérémie Renier) has entrusted him to a children’s home and leaves the boy believing that this will only be a temporary arrangement.  Despite all evidence--lack of contact, a disconnected phone number--Cyril refuses to accept that his dad has abandoned him.  

One day he escapes the institution to go to the apartment they once shared so he can be reunited with his parent.  The landlord insists no one occupies that unit any longer, but Cyril must see for himself.  Shortly after getting inside the building he is confronted by counselors who want to take him back to the home.  

Cyril eludes them and slips into the medical office downstairs.  The officials easily find him, but rather than going quietly and willingly, he causes a scene and tightly grasps Samantha (Cécile de France), a stranger in the waiting room.  Only after he is told that he can see the apartment does Cyril calm down.  When he enters it, there is no father waiting to embrace him.  The empty living space has been cleared of all possessions, including his bike.

The incident touches Samantha.  She buys back Cyril’s bike, which his father sold, and returns it to the boy.  At Cyril’s asking she also agrees to be his foster parent on weekends.  Samantha even arranges a meeting between Cyril and Guy.  When it is apparent that he will continue to give Cyril false hope of being together again, she forces the delinquent dad to be honest about the future and dedicates herself to the wounded child.
Writer-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne possess an extraordinary talent for turning social issue dramas into tense and empathetic thrillers centered on The Golden Rule.  Their films are implicitly religious studies of the moral choices confronting us as individuals and societies, yet they are anything but tedious sermons overflowing with platitudes and simple answers, the likes of which often mark what passes for explicitly Christian cinema.  Instead the Dardennes make gritty modern parables calling for compassion and sacrifice when such support is not easily given by those providing assistance or earned, if it is merited at all, by the recipients.  Like contemporary Jonahs, the Dardennes’ characters are regularly called to do precisely what they would prefer to avoid.  That human struggle gives their films the urgency and heart missing in cozier dramas where paying it forward is as painless as dropping spare change in the Salvation Army’s red kettles.
For Samantha in THE KID WITH A BIKE, the test is what to do about a boy who desperately needs someone to love and care for him.  For little more than a moment Cyril enters her life at random, yet something compels her to reach out to him.  Her motivation is never explained.  Perhaps she couldn’t if she tried.  What matters is that she helps him, not why.  They are brought together at a critical time in his development, and her kindness and generosity, while often rejected, offer the protection Cyril won’t get elsewhere.
Samantha, a single hairdresser who may have taken on more than she anticipated, lives out 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7.  In a marvelous performance rooted in action instead of backstory, de France demonstrates the purity of love and delicately expresses the joy and pain experienced in giving it unconditionally.  Samantha is not transparent, yet de France grounds the character so that her doings seem natural and true to form.
Doret, making an exceptional film debut, is a bundle of restlessness and anger.  His small stature makes plain the unguarded exposure to his father’s harshness and disguises the coiled energy with which Cyril will strike when provoked.  Doret does well projecting and exhibiting toughness beyond his years, but he’s most affecting when revealed as a confused and hurt child. 
The Dardennes’ style resists cheap sentimentality, yet in THE KID WITH A BIKE it yields a deeply moving examination of love as a shield.  They put forth no guarantee that everything will work out.  The vulnerability in no expectations or certainties materializes in a harrowing portrait of an at-risk child and the woman who could be his salvation.  In the Dardennes’ films the grace issued by ordinary people supplants miracles but is no less of a wonder.
Grade: A-

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