When we first meet 11-year-old Cyril in The Kid with a Bike—the 2011 Cannes Film Festival winner opening April 20 in Atlanta—he’s a nervous mass of energy bouncing off every surface he comes in contact with, as elusive to corral as a mini-bouncing ball.
His angst is understandable, since the head of the foster care he’s “temporarily” residing at has just informed him that his beloved dad has gone MIA, without so much as leaving a phone number.
Cyril’s search for his dad brings him face-to-face with some hard truths. But a chance encounter with kindly hairdresser Samantha (Cecile de France) in his dad’s old neighborhood is a rare strike of good fortune. She helps Cyril (newcomer Thomas Doret) track down his bike, and when Cyril asks if he can stay with her on weekends, she surprisingly agrees.
At first Samantha is basically a vehicle for Cyril’s ongoing quest to reunite with his father. But when that quest frequently ends in frustration and heartbreak, she’s left to pick up the pieces and corral Cyril when his angst leads him to inflict violence on himself or befriend neighborhood drug dealers. Will she become the parental figure Cyril never had, or is he destined for a life of crime, disappearing into the darkness like the proverbial bouncy ball, never to be found?
Despite the generic title, The Kid with a Bike is anything but. It charts the surrogate mother-child relationship at its center without going soft, a credit to directors Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne and their two talented leads.
One of the Dardenne brothers’ many wise artistic decisions is keeping Samantha’s motivations for taking in this unwieldy kid and keeping him—even when it threatens her relationship with her boyfriend and her own safety—a mystery. Another is casting de France, a talented actress (see: Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter and Mesrine: Killer Instinct, among others) with a toughness and knack for restraint. She’s a marvel in The Kid with a Bike, matching Cyril’s rage with a tenacity of her own.
The filmmakers also scored a huge coup in finding Doret. Much of the film’s weight falls on his young shoulders, and the rookie actor delivers with a performance full of ferocity and feeling. Doret makes his character’s desperation and hurt palpable without ever verbally expressing it. His uncertain search for right and wrong feels natural, a credit to the performance, the film’s powerful cinematography and the Dardenne brothers’ strong writing.
That ability to tell a moving coming-of-age story is on potent display as The Kid with a Bike reaches its conclusion. By the end, you’ve become so invested in Cyril’s fate that the film’s final closing minutes fray the nerves like a good suspense thriller. Yet The Kid with a Bike never seems overly sentimental or contrived, but instead an organically built, artfully balanced pic that earns its feeling and deservedly nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film.