Thomas Doret and Cécile de France in THE KID WITH A BIKE (Sundance Selects)

Written & Directed by Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Produced by the Dardennes & Denis Frey
Released by Sundance Selects
French with English subtitles
Belgium/France/Italy. 87 min. Rated PG-13
With Cécile de France, Thomas Doret, Jérémie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione & Egon Di Mateo

In an act of grand thievery, debut child actor Thomas Doret makes off with The Kid With a Bike. He’s a live wire moving in any direction, providing sparks to a film that bears the telltale signs of its Belgian directors, brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne: the (mostly) natural light, the ubiquitous handheld camera, and the seemingly unobtrusive, faux-documentary approach to storytelling, which lets the plot gently unravel. As in their other films, Kid doesn’t decisively end. The characters have lives of their own off screen, with no on-the-button resolution in sight. But make no mistake, this is definitely a feature film.

Cyril’s first seen refusing to hang up the phone, ignoring his counselor’s reminder that his dad has moved away over a month ago, and yet the boy calls the same number—and the line is still disconnected. The next day, the 11 year old jumps the fence of the children’s home and takes a bus to a concrete high-rise, and in one last ditch effort, presses the buzzer of his former home. Eventually someone buzzes him in, and he refuses to leaves the building until he finds out what happened to his dad and to his bike (his father would never sell it, or so he believes). Running away from his counselors, who have tracked down the runaway, Cyril bursts into a doctor’s office and before he can be nabbed, he clings for dear life to Samantha, a woman in the waiting room. Smart kid. He has his arms around one of the most beautiful film actresses today, Cécile de France.

Based on this chance encounter, she volunteers to have Cyril live with her on the weekends. Single and in her thirties, Samantha runs her own hair salon on the town’s main square. Patient and super-sensitive to the boy’s mood swings, she provides him stability, not to mention a cell phone and the return of his bike, which she bought back for Cyril, but what he really wants is to find his dad. Every boy needs a hero, whether it’s his spineless father or the popular older kid, who also happens to be the neighborhood drug dealer.

A child actor “brings a presence like an animal, a cat” onto the set, according to Jean-Pierre in a New York Times interview, and the ginger-haired Doret certainly unleashes a feral ferocity. Ever alert, his reactions can go any which way. When the neighborhood toughies nickname Cyril “Pitt Bull,” he has earned it. Psychologically potent, the film’s an insightful X-ray of an angry, demanding male adolescent that might cut close to home. Yet when it comes to the adult characters, the portrayals are sketchy, coming off as particularly fuzzy and contained compared to the transparent Cyril.

Samantha calmly reacts as though she knows full well what she has signed up for, including the kid’s violent behavior and the hit to her pocketbook. The directors only allow her a few moments of reflection for her to catch her breath. It’s not that the audience needs to know her background, but Samantha, like an angel of mercy (or of the movies), comes off as too good to be true, even when the down-to-earth Samantha wears the international, downscale uniform of the hairstylist, a purple leopard-print blouse (see Meryl Streep in Marvin’s Room). Despite the wardrobe, de France brings an inherent regality and radiance. However, based on the Dardennes’ previous films, you may not be expecting something like a modern fairy tale or a black-and-white plot. (Danger lurks in the dark, verdant forest on the edge of town.)

Samantha tracks down his father, who’s now working in a restaurant in another part of town, but Jérémie Renier’s turn as the skittish dad is too tentative to come off as more than a necessary obstacle: the man-child who abandons his son. The character is ashamed of his actions, but the actor practically recedes from the screen. Ironically, Renier made his first film when he was just barely in his teens in the Dardennes’ La Promesse in 1996, where, like Doret’s, his performance was raw. That’s not to say Kid isn’t suspenseful or engrossing. Kicking and screaming, Cyril’s so volatile and tenacious that you won’t know what he’ll do. But rather than losing yourself in sense of a simulated reality, you’re fully aware that it’s a movie.