Modern Euro-Cinema never met a lost, troubled or abandoned child it didn't love too much. From angry little Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows to the cat-killing boy who pledges over and over his intentions to be "good" in Maurice Pialat's L'enfance neu to the always weeping, orphaned, four-year-old existentialist in 1996's Ponette, it's a tough world out there for movie kids whose on-screen parents neglect, discard or just up and die on them. So in the latest dose of naturalism from Belgium's acclaimed brother-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, when little Cyril (newcomer Thomas Doret) finds himself dumped at a group home by his runaway father (Dardennes mainstay Jeremie Renier), his possibility for a happy ending just got a lot less likely than if his story were being told by somebody from, say, Hollywood.
And he's the most traumatized child the movies have seen in a while. Unable to accept the fact that his struggling father is both gone for good and has also sold his son's bicycle for cash, Cyril relentlessly hunts for the "stolen" vehicle by running around town, fighting, clawing and biting people until he gets his way, then badgering everyone he meets with bad-cop questions. When a kind hairdresser (Cecile DeFrance) locates the bike and also decides to become his weekend foster parent, even that might not be enough to salvage the broken child. And for the emotionally allergic, there's no sentimentality or cuteness here; this is a determined, stern-faced boy who knows exactly what he's lost and he won't rest until he gets it back, which also means he might never rest again. When he cries, "I want my Dad," it gets kind of brutal.
The Dardennes duo has made a trademark of out an old-fashioned, almost religious solemnity and compassionate humanism while denying almost all of their characters obvious or easy ways out of life's garbage dump -- and there are enough stab-you-in-the-heart moments this time around to bring tears to the toughest customer -- but here it feels like they might be softening their usual stance and allowing a sliver of grace into their troubled title kid's prospects. Sure, the needy boy is always in the wrong place at the wrong time, either falling in with and being trained by the local teen crime lord in efficient assault and robbery techniques, or else hiding from the world by wrapping himself in bedsheets like a makeshift body bag. But there's also room for forgiveness, generosity and non-terrible role models like the stubbornly concerned DeFrance (who's so resolute not to lose him that she doesn't get angry when bitten) and a neighbor boy who just wants to be Cyril's friend. In fact, when that neighbor urges Cyril to join a movie outing, attempting to entice him with "It's in 3D, it'll be fun!" you don't even care if he winds up at something rotten like Clash of the Titans, you just want him to stop snarling and let somebody -- anybody -- show him love.