A tragic figure in the person of an eleven year old, but a boy who never gives up.
The Dardenne brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc) have crafted an understated smash with their new breathtaking “The Kid With a Bike.” This riveting portrayal of a boy growing up alone took home the Grand Prix at Cannes 2011 and, more recently, scooped up a whopping four European Film Award nominations. The film is worth it. It is the most amazing blend of heart-rending tragedy and eye-watering courage to be seen this year.
Thirteen year old Thomas Doret is cast in the role of elven year old Cyril Catoul, a boy abandoned by his father. Doret does almost all of the heavy lifting in this film and his acting performance is genuine and heartfelt. However, this film is not entertaining. It is an essay in how heartless people can be in the grip of modern big-city life.
Taken into the custody of youth protective services, Cyril refuses to believe that his father has left him, even though all of the adult evidence confirms that is the case. This sort of thing seems to be allowed in Belgium, where it appears the story is set. Throughout the entire film there is little admonishment, let alone criminal prosecution, for the father who has abandoned the boy and started up a new life a short distance away.
The clever Cyril soon escapes from his light duty incarceration (they usually do, if they want to) and hits the streets searching for his father. Having barely covered his tracks, the father, Guy Catoul (Cesar’ nominated Jérémie Renier–“Work Hard, Play Hard”) is soon tracked down by Cyril and his newfound, unofficial guardian, Samantha (Cécile De France).
They track him down through an advertisement to sell Cyril’s bike, Cyril’s most prized possession. The bike is both the symbol of his emerging, threatened, masculinity and his power to shape his world. His father has lost the fight, but for Cyril, the fight goes on.
Father Guy has little to say and Cyril has little with which to argue. It is at this point in the film where the screenplay loses some of the audience. It will be hard for many viewers to believe what they are seeing, from both an emotional viewpoint and a legal viewpoint. It is as if the father simply says, “I divorce thee” three times and walked away.
The demands that the viewer give up on the legalities of this and concentrate on the subsequent exchange of roles. The son becomes the father, in touch with his feelings, and the father becomes the child, driven into regression due to his inability to cope with life. In the middle of this is Samantha, who is left to clean up the mess caused by the father.
Four time Cesar nominated Cécile De France does a smashing the woman who appears to Cyril’s last hope. The boy is superficially calm enough, but under the surface seethes a maelstrom of anger and violence. Images of young Billy the Kid and Jesse James, famous youthful bandits in the US old West flash through the mind. This is where they started. This is what made them killers.
When Cyril is drafted into the local street gang, Wes (Egon Di Mateo) first steals his bike, and then becomes his make-believe passport to power. Cyril is forced to learn the difference between right and wrong much too quickly and in far too many ways for an eleven-year-old boy.
In spite of the powerful cinematography and expert storytelling, this film is hard to watch, especially in the first half. It would appear the laws relating to child abandonment are different in Europe from in the US. The very act of walking away from a child is heartbreaking and nearly impossible to understand. An entire film could be made just about that.
The performances of the three leading characters are nearly perfect, as is the technical presentation of the film. In the end, there is hope, accompanied by the suggestion that Cyril will have hard times ahead of him. He is not only paying for his past transgressions but for those of his father, as well. In spite of the terrible circumstances, there is a knitting together that ends film on a positive note.
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Directed and Written by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Starring: Thomas Doret, Cécile De France and Jérémie Renier
Release Date: March 16, 2012
MPAA: Not Rated
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Country: Belgium / France / Italy
Language: French with English subtitles