The Kid with a Bike (2011)

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Cyril, the young protagonist at the heart of the Dardenne brothers' The Kid with a Bike, resembles the titular character from the directors' earlier work, Rosetta (1999): rugged, dogged, having to come to terms with harsh realities without adequate training. The narrow, over-the-shoulder focus of the earlier film, though - the camera never for once left Rosetta as she toiled to and fro within a stubbornly hand-held frame - is allowed more space here, and a sunshine illuminates proceedings, whose would-be gloom is further alleviated by an impossibly patient mother figure.

Played by a remarkably forthright Thomas Doret, Cyril flees his foster home to return to his father's apartment, where the janitor insists that nobody lives there anymore. The boy's loss is not only paternal: his cherished bicycle is also missing. Refusing to acknowledge the fact that his father has indeed abandoned him, Cyril makes for a neighbouring doctor's clinic, in the waiting room of which he pulls a woman to the floor, desperately holding onto her as his foster carers plead with him to let go.

The woman from the doctor's waiting room is Samantha (Cécile de France), who appears the next day at the foster home to hand Cyril his bike, which, presuming it to be his, she bought from someone in the projects. Prompted by this inexplicable act of kindness, Cyril asks if he can stay at Samantha's at weekends. She agrees; a bond develops. Having helped him find his bike, Samantha also assists Cyril in his search for dad. When the latter is finally found (Jérémie Renier), disappointment ensues: more than merely fatigued by fatherly duties, he does not want Cyril in his life, and tells him not to visit anymore.

That this scene occurs earlier in the film than one might have first expected is telling of the film's overall emphasis. This is less concerned with the "search for one's father" than it is a depiction of one woman's kindness and one boy's growing - perhaps reciprocal - dependency upon it. As such, the film deliberately evades the more interesting questions that emerge from its material to instead focus on that temporally brief but emotionally complex transitional phase in which the bond between two strangers becomes inseparable. Indeed, the film's happy ending resolves its third act but leaves wider curiosities open. Similar to, say, Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), the end here takes place before the real difficulties begin.

Samantha's motherly urge is never explained. Talented at filtering their stories through the viewpoint of their central characters, the Dardennes nevertheless fail to respond to the more objective questions of their material. In this instance, Samantha's presence in Cyril's life is taken for granted because the narrative unfolds from his perspective; likewise, local gang leader Wes (Egon Di Mateo) seems as charming and sincere to us as he does to Cyril. But dramatically, as a beautiful fairy godmother embodied by a famous Belgian star, Samantha should be of equal interest to us - as, for that matter, should Cyril's father, Guy.

But the reasons behind Guy's abandonment of Cyril are not given. Very little points to the social, and, as a result, he's psychologically unaccounted for too. Likewise, Samantha's continued patience with Cyril is as mysterious as her interest in him in the first place. The Dardennes' aesthetic is somewhat compromised as a result: unfolding from a fundamentally improbable scenario, the film holds one's attention for as long as its whimsy doesn't grate - something that'll differ according to taste. Not without some nuance, the film is as watchable as it is ultimately flat, driven by a strong performance from the youngster, Doret, whose willingness to just get up and get on with it could double as a kind of advertisement to us all.

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