Has there been a young boy with an older face than Thomas Doret in the Dardenne brothers’ new film, “The Kid With A Bike’’? Playing Cyril Catoul, an 11-year-old abandoned by his father, Doret betrays little emotion beyond a furrowed brow as his character cycles around the Belgian city of Liege looking for proof he’s no longer wanted. With his blonde buzzcut and upturned nose, the character could be Tintin marooned in the real world, his comic-book adventures turned taunting and cruel.
The movie, a grand jury prize winner at last year’s Cannes film festival, sounds unbearably sad in outline, and the Dardennes film it in their usual quasi-documentary style. And yet “The Kid With A Bike’’ is, remarkably, about hope - about the connections people forge when the ones they’ve been given desert them. Escaping the state-run facility in which he has been dumped, Cyril runs back to the last place he lived with his father - he needs to see for himself that the apartment is empty - and when he gets chased by authorities into a doctor’s office, he clings desperately to a woman sitting in the waiting room. She asks Cyril to ease his grip but still lets him hold on; the moment, his ferocious need, touches something in her.
A few days later, she’s back in his life, having retrieved the boy’s bicycle from the apartment complex. Then she signs up for weekend foster care. Samantha (Cécile de France) owns a salon, has a boyfriend (Laurent Caron), lives a casual urban life. One of the mysteries and consolations of the movie is that she lets Cyril into her world when most other people wouldn’t. There’s very little self-congratulation about “The Kid with a Bike,’’ the way there might if Sandra Bullock were starring in the Hollywood version. The Dardennes view her kindness as if it were a flower sprouting in concrete: rare, endangered, hardy.
Cyril doesn’t know what to do with it. Until he exhausts all other options, Samantha is merely a well-meaning distraction, and he kicks hard against what she represents: admitting that his dad no longer cares. With her help, he does locate the father (Jérémie Renier), who, somewhat disappointingly, isn’t an ogre but simply useless - an overgrown child who can’t see past his own inability to parent. The son, who doesn’t ask for pity from either Samantha or the audience, takes matters into his own hands, which leads him to the local drug dealer (Egon de Mateo), himself a former abandoned boy who empathizes with Cyril as much as he uses him.
As I said, you can see how the American remake of this would play, and the After-School Special version, too. The Dardennes don’t telegraph the story’s emotions, though, but let us locate them in the flow of their rigorously natural medium shots. There’s no backstory - Cyril’s mother is gone, never mentioned - and the only obvious touch of sentiment is the occasional burst from the second movement of Beethoven’s “Emperor’’ Concerto on the soundtrack.
Yet, because neither Thomas nor the filmmakers beg for our attention, “The Kid With A Bike’’ richly rewards it. Like all their movies - “La Promesse’’ (1998), “The Son’’ (2002), “The Child’’ (2005), etc. - this one peers into society’s margins, bearing witness to mistakes and resilience, mundane acts of cowardice and courage, those lightning moments where one sees one’s options with the clarity they deserve. “It’s him or me,’’ the boyfriend says, fed up with Cyril’s angry outbursts, and we can see that Samantha’s almost grateful to him for making the decision so easy.
The Dardennes achieve lyricism without seeming to try. All the scenes of Cyril on his bike move with the freedom the boy is denied elsewhere; his wheels are his only friends and an extension of his will. At times he appears to be a lonely mechanical centaur. Doret’s performance is solemn and focused all the way to the final image, which comes after one more brush with catastrophe and seems almost a throwaway, just another shot of the kid on his bike. It may only be after the lights come up that you realize what’s different: He’s finally riding toward something rather than away.