Several weeks ago I was at a party in which a man in his early thirties — after a few drinks — began to talk about his recent dinner with his father, who he had not seen and hardly spoken with in nearly twenty years. Many questioned why at his age and after all those years of nothing he would even want to be in the presence of his father.
“Because,” he answered, “He’s my father.” A simple enough answer, but what he really said was immediately understood.
There are few bonds in life that are as strong as one between a boy and his father. It’s been well documented that a male raised without a father figure can lead to all sorts of issues, with feelings of abandonment being chief among them. Such is the case of Cyril, the eleven year-old protagonist of The Kid With a Bike, the Belgium/French/Italian production that won the Grand Prix at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Cyril (Thomas Doret in his first film role) lives in an orphanage, though he is no orphan — he is well aware that his father, Guy (Jeremie Renier), is alive even if his phone is disconnected and he has moved out of the apartment they once shared. Cyril — who is a difficult, often violent child for obvious reasons — make excuses for his father’s abandonment, all the while believing his father still has Cyril’s prized bicycle.
He doesn’t, of course, since he has sold it — which is the least of Guy’s bastard actions in the film. A kind woman named Samantha (Cecile de France) manages to track it down and buy it back for him (though Cyril insists the bike must have been stolen, as his father wouldn’t have sold it). Samantha, obviously moved by Cyril’s situation, agrees to take him for the weekends as a foster mother.
It’s never explained why Samantha is so drawn to helping Cyril — she tells Cyril that she doesn’t know herself — especially since he acts out so harshly, but it’s easy to imagine that she connects with the child on a deep level. She is aware of Guy’s guilty disregard toward his son, and she tells Cyril “you shouldn’t think about him too much.” But how couldn’t he? Samantha then arranges a meeting between father and son, which Guy does just about everything possible to avoid. When he’s finally cornered the reunion does not go well, and Cyril’s reaction afterward is heartwrenching.
The film then becomes about Cyril’s search for a father figure. He begins to gravitate toward Wes (Egon Di Mateo), the local gang leader (and all around creep), who steers Cyril wrong despite Samantha’s best efforts. The scenes with Wes are the film’s most uncomfortable — as mature viewers, we are aware of how manipulative he is, though young Cyril doesn’t, and it isn’t initially clear what Wes has planned for Cyril.
Two aspects of the film fascinated me — first, though the film is ultimately the story of a boy searching for a father, the plot revolves around Cyril’s relationship with Samantha, a much more complicated relationship that his father’s guilty apathy. Second, bicycles have traditionally been used a symbol of freedom in film — such as in The Bicycle Thief, its quasi-remake Pee-Wee’s Great Adventure, Breaking Away, and Easy Rider (okay, those were motorcycles, but the point is the same). But in The Kid With a Bike, Cyril’s bicycle offers him no freedom — in fact, for much of the film his bike leads him into trouble since it remains his last link to an unworthy father.
There are a number of issues with the movie, however. The film is a bit short on story even for its 87 minute runtime. Those 87 minutes follow the long-take style that is common for European dramatic films, and while I’m fine with long takes it seemed like the takes stretched the film rather than pushed the story. Also, writers/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are not known for using music in their films, and after the use of the over-dramatic music cues in this film I would recommend they go back to the less-music style. It was almost comical how the film’s more dramatic moments were punctuated by a crescendoing, dramatic score. And, as you’d likely expect in a movie like this, the ending provides little closure (which is disappointing in the case of this film).
But the acting is top-notch, with Thomas Doret and Cecile de France having great chemistry, and Jeremie Renier and Egon Di Mateo make their characters easy to dislike. I would recommend the film on their performances alone, though it’s a shame that the rest of the film didn’t flow as well as the characters’ interactions do. It ultimately gives the feeling that the world around the characters is operating very slowly even though they are all headed for explosive conflicts.
Rating: A moving, though slow, movie carried by its performances (7.5/10)
The Kid with a Bike will be released in select theaters on March 16