From an exhibition standpoint, it's been a good year so far for art-house cinema. And Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Kid With a Bike brings another tough, challenging, rewarding, excellent film to town.
The eponymous hero of the Dardenne brothers' latest film is Cyril (Thomas Doret), a recently abandoned 10-year-old who's currently a ward of the state. After a sad, stationary opening shot of Cyril silently and motionlessly holding a phone to his ear and hoping to hear his father's voice on the other end, the Dardennes' famously fleet-footed handheld camera is off and running as it follows Cyril's attempt to escape from his guardian and find his dad. During his quest, Cyril crashes into Samantha (Cécile de France), a thirty-something hairdresser who eventually agrees to take him into her custody on weekends. After Cyril finds his father — who gently but firmly rejects him — this kid and his bike soon encounter the potential dangers that come with trying to find a paternal figure at any cost.
The second half of the film is full of plot twists, fights, and chase scenes that are faster and more suspenseful than most films because they're grounded in the actors' lunchpail-toting, lived-in performances. And unlike many of this spring's CGI-laden action epics, The Kid With a Bike is a relentlessly physical action film: It's filled with real people occupying real space as they hug, kick, run, punch, jab, grab, and chuck rocks at each other. Over and over, the Dardennes prove that the drama of the human figure is still as important to the movies as the drama of the action figure.
Another part of the film's distinctive corporeality comes from its characters' unusual obsession with food — who's offering it, who's preparing it, what it means — that's often reminiscent of the works of Charlie Chaplin. But the Dardennes' love of children and their feel for the underclass seem equally inspired by a far darker source.
The Dardennes' previous film, 2008's Lorna's Silence, seemed to me to suggest some thematic and spiritual connections between their work and the stories and novels of the great American writer Flannery O'Connor. A closer consideration of The Kid With a Bike strengthens and deepens that hypothesis. Both O'Connor and the Dardennes are known as regionalists, but they tend their patches of earth so carefully that they keep uprooting stories with far-reaching, nearly universal appeal and relevance. Both are concerned with Christian questions of suffering, forgiveness, and redemption. Both endow their major characters with pure, unshakable willpower and stubbornness. And both insist that their audience feel what O'Connor called "the price of restoration."
O'Connor wrote, "I once received a letter from an old lady in California ... it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read. I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up." The Dardennes would surely agree with that assessment; the final word of their film — which foreshadows a hazardous return to normalcy — is "No."
The Kid With a Bike
Opening Friday, May 18th