For every treacly family story we make in America starring a precocious up-and-comer who looks good on a red carpet, there's something similar overseas that eclipses it with realism and emotional intelligence. The Belgian film The Kid with a Bike is not for anyone who needs their child star to spout witticisms about their Baby Einstein DVDs. Newcomer Thomas Doret is actually a jerk, without the hint of endearing qualities we normally expect from our cranky protagonists. Not that it's his fault--he's a child that's been through some things that are difficult for him to process, and acts like any disenfranchised young kid knocking on the door of teenaged life would. Without preaching or shaking fingers, the Dardenne brothers' latest award-winning film feels like they just found a kid, hid some cameras around him, and let life happen, which made for a revealing 87 minutes.
In this movie, the focal point of the activity is 11-year-old Cyril (Doret). He gets cuts and scrapes, ignores his teachers, is sullen, and refuses to accept the idea that his father has stranded him in the foster care system and sold his bicycle (which happens to be the thing he loved most, after his father). It's like Bicycle Thieves, except the dad is an unfit, absentee parent who caused the whole situation in the first place. Right off the bat, my heart broke for this kid because it's likely that his dad is everything you fear him to be. But Cyril doesn't make anything easy for anyone--including feeling sorry for him. His mind-blowingly natural performance drew my sympathy at the same time I wanted to scream at him to behave. This constant tug of war in my head felt like a brain-flossing, cleaning out all those spoon-fed Hollywood stories I am so used to seeing.
Thankfully, there is someone in Cyril's world with enough compassion and grace to connect with him, no matter how difficult it is. She is a hairdresser named Samantha (Cécile de France), and she's no towering superhero making grand, dramatic gestures. She's just a person with an open heart and a hunch that she can make a difference in this child's life. She helps him find his bike and track down his father, treating him gently, easing him back into the world of reasonable human beings. Her sweetness and determination reaffirmed my admiration for anyone who loves kids so much that they stick it out through thick and thin. The best part is that the directors don't create any of this overtly; their laid-back style just allows a lot of room for interpretation without trying to manipulate you into feeling any certain way.
Cyril has a long way to go before he can shake the sadness and longing caused by his unfortunate situation. There's some trouble to be had, which comes as no surprise to anyone who understands the ravaging effects of abandonment. But in this movie even when things get really bad, just like in life when things happen, you deal. Either it goes away or you learn how to live with it.