Still from The Kid With a Bike (2011) — Image via ifcfilms.com

The Kid With a Bike

Directed by Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne (2011)

The Kid With a Bike (Le gamin au vélo), the latest film by Belgian directors and Cannes favorites Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, stands out in some important ways from their last few films. While those works focused on adults who were placed in the position of making difficult moral choices, The Kid With a Bike focuses on a child who is forced to cope with the moral choices of the adults around him, from a father who has abandoned him to a hairdresser who agrees to become his foster parent within days of meeting him.

The Dardennes have spoken of The Kid With a Bike as being somewhat of a fairy tale, and several aspects of the film reflect this, including the intense colors (le gamin likes to wear bright red almost as much as Bart Simpson does), the foreboding status of the woods, and the Dardennes’ first-time use of non-diegetic music in the form of short bursts of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto that punctuate key moments. But, like the Dardennes’ other works, this film is still rooted in the specificity of the people and events taking place on the screen, full of brief moments guaranteed to elicit nervous laughter from audiences that have grown accustomed to films in which every gesture is meant to either advance the plot or enhance the demographic appeal of the film.

Still from The Kid With a Bike (2011) — Image via ifcfilms.comAgainst this backdrop, we have something of a coming-of-age story. At the beginning of the film, Cyril (Thomas Doret) seems to be driven largely by instinct, specifically the instinct to return to the father (Jérémie Renier) who has left him at an orphanage. In the course of these efforts, he encounters Samantha (Cécile de France), a complete stranger who treats him with more kindness than he has previously encountered. He comes to recognize that her kindness is preferable to the unkindness of his father, but when he is also treated kindly by a teenage thug, Wes (Egon Di Mateo), he is unable to discern between Wes’s self-interested behavior and Samantha’s compassionate behavior. And indeed, as viewers, we are never clued in on what motivates Samantha, though we see her wrestling with the consequences of her decisions.

Overall, The Kid With a Bike strikes a good balance between telling the story from the point of view of the child protagonist and giving the viewer enough distance to gain perspective on the actions of the older characters. While several characters are less praise-worthy than Samantha, they are portrayed in ways in which the viewer can understand and even potentially sympathize with their motivations. Even Wes, who is clearly the villain when the film is viewed as a fairy tale, is a comprehensible sort of villain; having spent three years in the same orphanage as Cyril, he must now care for his bedridden grandmother without any apparent source of legitimate income.

Still from The Kid With a Bike (2011) — Image via ifcfilms.comThe Dardennes’ long-time focus on economically disadvantaged characters who choose to become more moral people not driven solely by their material needs has always been a bit troubling. Some have interpreted their films as suggesting that the poor are responsible for their own destitution. On the other hand, it is never suggested that people’s lives become any less difficult as a result of their moral growth. In fact, one of the most striking things about the Dardennes’ films is that they never wrap up neatly. Once the filmmakers have shown us everything they want to show us, the film is over. Usually, we are still worried about what is going to happen to the characters.

I’ve been using the word “moral” to describe the choices that the Dardennes’ characters make, but their focus never really seems to be on issues of right and wrong. First and foremost, they seem to be fascinated the capacity of people to open themselves up to empathizing with and accepting other people, and their strong command of their craft enables them to share this fascination with their audiences.

Originally posted on The 400 Blows

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.