The Belgian directing team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is renowned for making spare and exploratory movies that avoid easy psychological explanations, not to mention a musical soundtrack. Everything is au naturel with the brothers Dardenne – or at least that's the illusion. Artlessness is their artistry.
"The Kid With a Bike," about an enraged 11-year-old boy abandoned by his father, is somewhat more theatrical than their other films. For one thing, it actually features snatches of a score (albeit Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto). For another, the camerawork, instead of their usual bobbly, hand-held approach, is relatively rock solid. This is fine with me. I've never understood why filmmakers think a bobbly camera is more "realistic" than a stationary one.
At the start of the film, Cyril (Thomas Doret), who has been placed temporarily in a boys' home, furiously flees its confines to track down his errant father (Jérémie Renier). He discovers that his father has sold Cyril's bike and left with no forwarding address. This bicycle is perhaps the most metaphorical two-wheeler since the stolen bike in "Bicycle Thieves." It represents for Cyril much more than a means of transportation: It's an escape hatch, a chariot, a tangible proof of his father's love (or callousness).
Cyril's savior, of a sort, comes in the form of a local hairdresser in the blue-collar Belgian town of Seraing. As the Dardennes have remarked in interviews, Samantha (Cécile de France) is a kind of fairy godmother. Cyril randomly latches onto her, but there's a fated quality to their matchup. She helps track down his bike and returns it to the boys' home, and Cyril, overcoming his pent-up rage at his father's indifference, asks if she will be his weekend guardian.
The Dardennes never underline why Samantha, who is single and childless, wants to redeem Cyril, especially when he fights off her affections so strenuously. We can supply our own answers. The brothers have been much praised over the years for their no-explanations approach to human behavior. ("The Kid With a Bike" won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011 and two other films of theirs, "Rosetta" and "The Child," won Palmes d'Or). I often find this approach insufficient, a fancy form of creative abdication. Sometimes a blank slate is just a blank slate.
Still, the Dardennes' method is preferable to those of all the filmmakers who constantly tell us how to feel, how to think. The unknowability of human motivation is real big with the Dardennes, but in "The Kid With a Bike," it doesn't take much deep-dish psychologizing to figure out why Cyril is so disturbed, or even why the attractive Samantha, who surely could do more with her life than wrangle a surly child, is drawn to him.
"The Kid With a Bike" is, glaringly, a movie about the consequences of parental abandonment, and those consequences play out in ways that, for the most part, seem devastatingly true to life. And even though Samantha is fairy godmother, she alone cannot save Cyril from himself. Waiting in the wings is a local drug dealer and thief (Egon Di Mateo) on the prowl for new recruits.
Doret, who has never acted before this film, is a firebrand with an instinctive sense of how much of himself to give up to the camera. At first I thought he was too closed-off in the role, but his opaqueness thaws as his predicament deepens. De France wisely underplays the sentimentality. The Dardennes, of course, have always avoided soppiness. Avoiding it in this film, given its subject, is something of an achievement.
It's an achievement that cannot, in the end, be compared with such kidcentric classics as "The 400 Blows," "Shoeshine," or "Bicycle Thieves." (Such claims have been made.) It doesn't have the visual or psychological richness of those films, or the sense of a larger society, a larger universe, bearing down on its protagonists. It's minor, but powerfully so. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)