“Tell me what’s wrong. I can’t guess, Cyril.” Samantha (Cécile De France) bends down to get a closer look at the child; he’s got his head in a sink. It’s a large sink, one of several in Samantha’s hairdressing salon, and he’s small, about 11 years old, slight and red-haired. At first, the image seems awkward, as it is certainly hard to talk to someone who’s running water when you’ve asked him not to, and turning his head deliberately from you. But the handheld two-shot, partly comic, partly tense, and partly sweet, is pretty much perfectly resonant, a miniature of the trouble that’s led them to this standoff as well as what’s to come.
Cyril (Thomas Doret) is the titular Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) in the Dardenne brothers’ new film, and when he’s not on that bike—spinning around parking lots or flying along city streets—he’s still in motion, just not going anywhere. Inside Samantha’s shop, he’s especially restive, resisting her efforts to talk, to understand “what’s wrong.”
That’s not to say she can’t guess at least part of it, as the film also asks viewers to do. If Cyril is reluctant to say what’s on his mind, it’s clear enough that he’s struggling with a traumatic situation: his father, Guy (Jérémie Renier), has abandoned him at a group home in Liège. He’s gone so far as sell Cyril’s beloved bike and leave no forwarding address, though he’s only moved across town. When he learns Guy is gone, the boy becomes determined to find him—and the bike Cyril believes his father has with him. He bolts from the too-late arms of supervisors at the home, gallops down the street to a city bus, and makes his way to the apartment where his father used to reside. Here again, he refuses to take “He’s gone” for an answer, sneaking into the building and pounding on the apartment door until a neighbor and building manager, attended by the group home counselor, let him inside and he can see the utter emptiness himself.
Even as this sequence leads inexorably toward Cyril’s disappointment, it is remarkably propulsive, the camera close on the boy’s focused face or churning arms and legs, the space around him confined but volatile. In this instance of the Dardennes’ signature use of handheld, tight framing, you’re left pondering what lies just beyond Cyril’s view, or at least beyond his next step, even as you anticipate exactly what’s coming, a sensational mix of dread and hope, as you’re aligned with Cyril’s erratic but fixated effort to understand and gain some semblance of childish, very particular, control.
Convinced that his father has left, he turns to Samantha, whom he meets by chance, as her shop is on the ground floor of his dad’s building. Observing the initial upset, she’s sympathetic to his plight, tracks down the buyer of the bike, buys it back and returns it to Cyril. When she also agrees to be his foster parent on weekends, the kid, being a kid—perhaps because he’s his father’s kid or perhaps because he’s any kid facing an impossible situation—makes some choices that are selfish and hurtful. She helps Cyril find his father and even drives him to see Guy: “Don’t be upset if it’s not the way you dreamed it would be,” she cautions, as the camera focuses on Cyril’s averted face in her car. “I’m not dreaming,” he insists, intently munching the sandwich she’s made him.
The Kid with a Bike maintains this delicate tension between exactly these poles—the dream and the immediate, material world in front of Cyril. If you’re not surprised that Guy is less than welcoming when Cyril shows up, the boy takes it in a kind of stride. Working in a restaurant kitchen that’s owned by the girl he’s now moved in with, Guy at first puts up with Cyril’s attempts to help. But as a two-shot shows father and son at the stove, peering into pots, Guy gathers himself and pushes the boy away, and tells him not to come back. Persistent still, Cyril imagines he might win his way back into his dad’s life, and proceeds to come up with schemes to please him. To that end, he hooks up with a local delinquent, Wes (Egon Di Mateo), who offers both a PlayStation and instruction on small-time thuggery.
Too many films pretend to remember childhood, they tend to present a child’s view that is restricted and cute, nostalgic and predictable, and of course, predicated on reaction shots. What’s striking about the Dardennes’ work, including La Promesse (which features Renier as a boy on a bike, in 1996), Rosetta (1999), and Le fils (2002), is that the camera creates story, rather than following it around. As the Belgian brothers’ films work out complex, compelling relationships between point of view and character, your experience is less about action than impression and perception, more fully emotional and moral, and quite acutely political.
Cyril might find his way through the thicket before him, the alternating displays of kindness and ignorance, exploitation and compassion. But where he’s headed is less intriguing than where he is at any given moment. His options, however limited, are ever vividly varied. And so he must remain in motion, never quite ahead of them and trying every moment to keep up.