I'm really moved by the work of first-time film actor Thomas Doret in The Kid With a Bike. He plays Cyril, a Belgian boy of about 11. Cyril lives with a lot of hurt, but he doesn't dare let on. Instead, he gets angry. He broods. He flinches violently when anyone gives him a comforting touch.
And especially, he bolts. In the heartbreaking sequence that begins this restrained, very good drama, he runs away from the foster-care facility where he lives. He is searching for his father, who has disappeared. When the adults who care for Cyril find him at his old apartment building, they humor him by showing him the empty flat his father has vacated. Even then, Cyril refuses to acknowledge what is obvious. His father has abandoned him.
What a sad, compassionate film this is. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian brothers who wrote and directed it, never overplay their hand. They skillfully let some scenes unfold without dialogue. At certain key moments, we simply see Cyril and his bicycle. It's a clever storytelling device, the bicycle, and an effective one. Cyril takes great pride in it, and he does tricks on it. It gives him freedom to move around. But it's a poignant reminder of how little else he has, this kid in the foster-care system.
Cyril becomes friends with a kind woman he meets, a hairdresser named Samantha. She is played by Cécile De France, who was seen on American multiplex screens in 2010, when she starred in Clint Eastwood's Hereafter. Samantha begins looking after Cyril on weekends. They have sweet moments together but also tense ones, as in a frightening sequence that sees a panicked Cyril jumping off a moving carnival ride.
In the most tragic scene, Samantha takes Cyril to the restaurant where his father (Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier) is a cook. At first the father is cowardly and evasive. It's a horror when he casually discloses that he sold Cyril's bicycle because he needed the money.
Only when Samantha is sharp with the father does he tell Cyril the truth. He's overwhelmed, and he doesn't want to see Cyril anymore. That's a blow, and it sets up the moment when a despairing Cyril, guided by a manipulative thug (Egon Di Mateo) who befriends him, makes a shockingly bad choice. These scenes remind me of the terrific 2008 Italian film Gomorrah, in which rudderless boys find acceptance in the underworld.
I guess The Kid With a Bike is a social-issue film about foster care, but the Dardennes artfully decline to preach. They let their emotionally intricate story speak for itself. A late development suggests that Cyril is a lucky kid. A jolting, even later development suggests that not all his luck is good.