The Dardenne brothers (L’Enfant, Lorna’s Silence) once again demonstrate their mastery for crafting character studies around broken souls trying to get by in France, with their newest film, The Kid With A Bike. The film opens with young Cyril Catoul (Thomas Doret), trying to break free from an orphanage to see his father, while everyone around him is trying to explain that his father has left him there. It’s a heartbreaking opening, immediately giving us a taste of the magnificent performance that Doret will continue to demonstrate over the course of the film. Cyril is desperate to escape their clutches and refuses to listen to their pleas for understanding. He’s a rebellious young boy, unyielding in his cause and so sure that there must be some explanation; surely his father couldn’t be that cruel. Of course the audience knows the revelation he is most likely going to receive.
Soon he comes into the care of Samantha (the always great Cecile De France), a hairdresser in the town nearby who runs into him by chance, and this is where the film really starts to succeed. The relationship at the core of the film isn’t with Cyril and his father (whom we do eventually meet), but instead with him and Samantha. Cyril spends his time pouting, rebelling and generally being your standard adolescent boy, while Samantha tries to become this mother never had. Cecile De France is an actress I’m always interested to watch, with her expressive face that she’s put to great use in many films before this but never so well as she does here. Samantha’s resilience towards Cyril’s constant attempts to pull away make it clear that she must have come from a situation similar to his, and is fighting so fiercely to make sure he doesn’t face the fate that she knows exists. In a town filled with troubled youths, Samantha fought her way out the other side and she wants to bring Cyril there with her. It’s a very warming dynamic and the Dardennes really make you feel all of the highs and lows of it. This isn’t your standard character study; you feel these characters like very few films can make you do.
One of the most sensational aspects of the picture is the performance anchoring it all from Thomas Doret. Watching Doret, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the young Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows. Cyril is a rebel in the purest form, broke down by the society he’s been born into and constantly fighting back against the authority figures in his life. But unlike Leaud’s Antoine Doinel, Cyril isn’t looking for freedom here; he’s looking for acceptance. Throughout the film Cyril is pulled in a multitude of directions, but the only one he wants to get pulled into is the arms of his father; and in the twisted harshness of life, that’s the one direction that just pushes him away. Doret completely embodies this character, absent of any tick or fallacy that generally comes with a child actor. It’s got to be the finest child performance put on screen in quite some time. The boy isn’t some adorable little kid; he’s a real person and sometimes he drives you insane, but you always end up rooting for him when it comes down to it. My heart sank in the moments with his father (played well by Dardennes regular Jeremie Renier), warmed in the few bright spots in his life and when he was in danger I almost drew blood from digging my nails into my palm due to the tension.
Along with the emotional journey that the Cyril/Samantha dynamic takes you on, the Dardennes also imbue the film with a dark fairy tale metaphor that I found added a great new layer to Cyril’s story. Cyril spends the film wearing a variety of red tops, clearly representing our Riding Hood lost in the woods, and at a certain point he encounters our version of the Big Bad Wolf; a troubled youth who didn’t have the luxury of a Samantha in his life. This Wolf is the counter to Samantha’s mother figure and Cyril is a broken soul caught in a world where he could walk down the dark path of the drug dealers and thieves or into the light that Samantha tries to open up to him. It’s a strikingly human story that keeps you on your toes and grasps your heart. I won’t reveal the final path that Cyril ends up taking, but it kept me in tears for the final ten or fifteen minutes.