NYFF ’11 Review: The Dardennes’ “The Kid With a Bike” Moves, Yet Not Quickly Enough for its Young Lead

Indulging in (slightly) more cinematic flourishes than in their previous work, the Dardenne brothers' latest is a hard-earned fairy tale about a young boy at a crossroads when abandoned...

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All of our 2011 New York Film Festival coverage is here.

During the post-screening press conference for “The Kid With a Bike” at the New York Film Festival, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne revealed that the original title for their latest film was “Pitbull,” though upon discovering from their European distributor that wouldn’t play well with women, they settled for something less ferocious. Some may accuse the Dardennes of doing the same throughout “The Kid With a Bike” overall, their first to apply orchestral swells of Beethoven (however sparingly) and other stylistic touches to augment reality rather than depict it without comment. However, the Dardennes once again have managed to capture an entire spectrum of experience and emotion from their usual setting of Liège, Belgium.

KidWithaBikeCecileDeFrance At 11 years old, the film’s protagonist Cyril (Thomas Doret) has little experience to speak of, so it’s particularly crushing when his father (Jérémie Renier), who may actually be even more immature, leaves him to a foster home after his grandmother dies and prefers to keep his whereabouts a secret. Cyril has become unruly and tenacious in his month-long absence, giving chase to his caretakers who can always find him on the trail to find his father.

During one of his chases, he literally runs into Samantha (Cecile de France), the owner of a hair salon who doesn’t object when Cyril asks her to take him in, though this doesn’t satiate his desire to reunite with his father. It only means the caretakers won’t follow him. Wiry and relentless, he also catches the attention of a local gang leader when one of his minions steals Cyril’s bike and Cyril puts up a good fight, leading to the nickname “Pitbull” and a possible spot in his operation.

The Dardennes use the pull of good versus evil as their framing device since Cyril is asked to choose between the unconditional embrace of Samantha, who doesn’t yet know exactly how to handle a young boy, or the promise of playing “Assassin’s Creed” and the fraternity that comes with a gang, in spite of violence and dishonesty that clearly isn’t part of his DNA. But as in all their films, Cyril’s transformation as a character is what takes precedence, first losing his way after being abandoned by his father and feeling the frustrations of his age in attempting to locate him before ultimately losing his innocence.

With a more rigid storyline, there’s less ambiguity at the end of “The Kid With a Bike” than the Dardennes have left in the past, but it only heightens the potency of their latest from scene to scene. It’s particularly heartbreaking to watch Samantha start to lose her faith in Cyril after she’s been so generous to him, the child unable to understand his effect on anyone else since he feels so powerless in getting the things he wants. Cyril and Samantha’s relationship feels a bit forced at first — then again what kind of shotgun marriage like this wouldn’t? – but through Doret and de France’s finely-modulated performances, their bond becomes plausible because of how deeply humane it is.

As Samantha says in her first words to Cyril, “You can hold onto me, but not so tight.” Of course, it’s when he loosens his grip that “The Kid With a Bike” tightens the one on its audience.

"The Kid With a Bike" will be released in the U.S. by Sundance Selects in March 2012. It will play once more in New York tonight at Alice Tully Hall at 9 p.m.

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