Cyril is a restless and stern-faced child with dogged determination, played brilliantly by Thomas Doret. The current subject consuming his determined mind is the loss of his bike and the absence of his father. The two are interconnected. Cyril has been abandoned at a care home by his father (Jeremie Renier), stranded with no clue as to why his father has left him and unable to believe that if he had, that his father wouldn't have left him with his bike. Cyril's father has decided that he wants to start afresh though and there's no room in his life for son, both financially and emotionally.
Cyril is unwilling to accept the idea that his father has just abandoned him and sold his beloved bike. He escapes the home to track down his bike and speak to his father. Unable to achieve either he is deposited back at the home, but not before a chance encounter with the near saintly Samantha (Cécile De France), a local hairdresser who seems to find sympathy with the troubled Cyril following an altercation in which he ends up wrestling her to the floor.
The two connect and there is obviously the early hints that Cyril may have lost one parent but found a surrogate in Samantha. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the directors' (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne) prior work this is conveyed with great restraint. The Dardennes never fall into over-egging the pudding when it comes to the relationship between the two throughout the film, but even in these early scenes there is important groundwork laid that holds real significance.
Cyril clearly takes a shine to Samantha, obvious despite his face betraying nothing, following a visit from her after she manages to find his bike. Cyril asks if perhaps he could stay with her at the weekends, something Samantha promptly agrees to, and the two begin spending every weekend together and forming a difficult but very meaningful bond.
In the hands of many other writers and directors this kind of material could easily be horribly trite, filled with cliché and over-sentimentality but in the hands of the Dardennes this is never a concern. Subtlety and naturalism are clearly at the heart of every choice in The Kid with a Bike and the film is so incredibly engaging and affecting as a result of the strong commitment to this approach. The cinematography is understated and mostly hand-held and the only area in which stylistic intrusion interferes in the story is a few instances in which a single piece of music disrupts and distracts. Not a particularly significant problem and in any other film the brief washes of music could even go unnoticed. Here though it is entirely conspicuous and an odd choice that seems to add nothing but instantly pull one out of the film. The moments are brief though and for the most part every moment in The Kid with a Bike is near flawless. Once drawn into Cyril's small world you are captivated, every twist in the story leaving you almost holding your breath, anxious as to what will happen next.
Despite the rather difficult subject matter and tense plotting, it gets darker than the above set up would perhaps suggest, the film does contain some levity. A rather 'pretty' summer bike ride is, for instance, a moment to take a sigh of relief and despite this moment treading a thin line from simply being twee it is entirely in service of the story and in keeping with the events that are unfolding. This sweet aside is also contrasted by heartbreaking moments, such as a near tragic accident late in the film or the moment in which Samantha's boyfriend forces her to choose between him and Cyril, following a bout of particularly bad behaviour from Cyril. Samantha's flat response of "him" to the question from her boyfriend, "It's me or him" is utterly convincing and beautifully underplayed. So much goes unsaid in this brief moment but so much is conveyed, a perfect encapsulation of the beauty of The Kid with a Bike.
Deftly written, sensitively directed and with nuanced and considered performances, The Kid with a Bike is another wonderful and engaging film from Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne.
The Kid with a Bike is in UK cinemas now.