Belgium’s Dardenne brothers make movies that remind you the most compelling stories are unfolding right outside your window, rather than in outer space, the distant past or wherever cinema usually takes us. But rather than diminishing the medium, they elevate it, as in “The Kid With a Bike,” another fest-ready, arthouse-bound neorealist snapshot that subtly echoes virtual soul brother Vittorio de Sica’s “Shoeshine” and “Bicycle Thieves.” The Dardennes’ sixth Cannes-born feature, “Kid” shadows a stormy 11-year-old grappling with the realization that his father doesn’t want him, shoring up the helmers’ profoundly humanistic, observational approach after the slightly more mainstream “Lorna’s Silence.”
As played by newcomer Thomas Doret, Cyril is an intense young man. This much is evident from the first scene, in which the agitated lad attempts to break out of the boys’ home where he lives after failing to reach his father by phone. Cyril simply can’t comprehend being abandoned: He’s an angry kid, refusing to trust anyone but his own dad, even after seeing for himself that the deadbeat sold Cyril’s bike and moved without a word.
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“Kid’s” first few reels track Cyril’s determined search for his father. “Don’t be upset if it’s not the way you dreamed it should be,” warns Samantha (Cecile de France), a kind-hearted hairdresser who generously agrees to watch Cyril on the weekends, hardly realizing what a handful the boy can be.
But her intuitions prove correct: Cyril’s dad, a weary-looking lout played by Dardennes regular Jeremie Renier (who made his debut in the brothers’ “La Promesse,” which might just as easily have been called “The Kid With a Motorbike”), wants nothing to do with his son. Now, all that leftover aggression needs an outlet — an idea that fuels the remainder of the film, as the poor, wound-up kid acts out in various ways.
Watching Samantha patiently try to get through to her foster charge is like witnessing a cowboy break in an obstinate mustang. Though the narrative strands shift several times over the course of Cyril’s journey, the basic arc tracks how the boy, half wild with desperation, is ultimately tamed by Samantha’s fundamentally good nature.
A stock version of the same story might find de France’s and Renier’s characters gradually falling in love over the course of the film. In the Dardennes’ hands, however, she Samantha represents the sort of exemplary soul we too seldom see in films — least of all Cannes, where “Kid” is competing alongside several entries committed to exposing pedophilia and child abuse. Samantha is one of those beatific yet realistically challenged women, like Simone Signoret’s “Madame Rosa,” who embodies the best of us, putting aside her own interests in a sincere effort to give Cyril a chance at a proper childhood.
And yet, cinema thrives on conflict, and while the Dardennes’ miniaturist style brooks no contrivances, it’s not enough to base a film on a boy who refuses to be loved. So the helmers introduce a local thug named Wes (Egon Di Mateo) who sees potential in Cyril’s pent-up anger, enlisting the kid to participate in a robbery that brings tragedy into the picture.
Among movie moralists, the Dardenne brothers certainly rank near the top of any list of directors preoccupied with matters of personal responsibility and conscience. As such, there’s something a bit disappointing about how straightforward “Kid” is regarding the choices Cyril should be making, especially when compared with the more difficult decisions underlying “The Son” and “L’enfant.” “Kid” is undeniably mellower stuff, a softening further enhanced by Alain Marcoen’s lensing, brighter and less brutally handheld than in their past collaborations.
Members of an elite list of helmers who have won dual Palmes d’Or at Cannes, the siblings are known for launching acting careers, not casting established names (another regular, Olivier Gourmet, makes a brief appearance as a bartender here). It’s a pleasant surprise, then, to see them cast movie star de France, hot off Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter.” The Belgian-born actress gets a rare chance to reprise her native accent for this film, set in Seraing, the blue-collar industrial town that has hosted most of the Dardennes’ earlier efforts.
De France is a natural fit, blending into the vaguely white-trashy environs with her acid-washed denim and wild-print synthetics. Still, she’s more than proven herself in the past. The breakout here is 13-year-old Doret, the Dardennes’ latest stunningly naturalistic, non-professional acting discovery. Whether blazing through Seraing’s streets on his bike or carrying a difficult scene, he’s never less than riveting to watch — his face the telltale steam-vent that augurs an emotional geyser roiling beneath.