The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (L'enfant, Rosetta), who stumbled a bit with their last film, Lorna's Silence, have made a winning comeback in The Kid with a Bike, a coming-of-age tale about an 11-year-old boy (Thomas Doret), his bicycle and one very kind stranger (Cécile de France).
Cyril's mother is dead, and his father (Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier), who is having financial difficulties, dumps him at an orphanage. Cyril wants to recover his bicycle, which is to say that he really wants to see his father, whom he discovers has moved away; Samantha (de France), a neighbor he literally latches onto in a doctor's office, buys his bike back, and a bond is forged. She becomes his weekend foster mother and helps him track down his father, who is working as a cook in a restaurant on the other side of the river.
The geography is significant, and it's one the Dardennes know well: It's their unpicturesque hometown of Seraing
, a Walloon municipality in Liège. The filmmakers have schematized their landscape triangularly, as the boy pedals his bike furiously between the housing project where he once lived, the gas station where a pivotal event occurs, and the woods, where, as in a fairy tale, evil lurks and, as often in the Dardennes’ movies, transformation occurs.
The Big Bad Wolf is an older boy (Egon Di Mateo) who's named himself Wes after a character in Resident Evil and who's impressed with little Cyril's fighting skills. He calls him "Pitbull" (the original title of the film), but Cyril is less a junkyard dog among bicycle thieves than a boy who must pass through an apprenticeship on his way to maturity.
In typical Dardenne fashion, the brothers never explain why Samantha, a hairdresser of modest means, impulsively opens her home to Cyril, but above-and-beyond kindness has an enduring fascination for the filmmakers; in Le fils, a shop teacher contemplates becoming the guardian of the delinquent who killed his son. Here, their focus is on both the foster parent and the child, socially determined for a life of crime. But for the Roman Catholic-raised Dardennes, who decline to pigeonhole their films as Christian, a commitment to social realism does not preclude an unflagging faith in the power of redemption.
Like many children in the Dardennes' movies, the 13-year-old Doret is making his acting debut, and he is excellent as a boy whose illusions of his father's love have been shattered. Renier's presence makes the movie feel like a follow-up to L'enfant, here selling his child's bicycle instead of his child.
But the The Kid with a Bike also represents a departure for the filmmakers. De France (Hereafter), an actual movie star, glams up the brothers' kitchen-sink realism considerably. When she takes Cyril on a bike ride and a picnic, the skies are blue and shot with sunlight as they rarely are in the Dardennes' Seraing.
The brothers even depart from their usual austerity by occasionally punctuating the drama with music, using the Adagio from Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto to connote the state of grace to which Cyril, like all Dardenne protagonists, aspires, even if he doesn't know it yet.