Driven by a tale of abandoned youth and itinerant in its navigation of a European working class milieu, The Kid With a Bike resembles François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows down to a fluid tracking shot of the title character on the move. When the fiery Cyril takes his bike to the streets, trying to outrun the painful present, we think of Antoine Doinel, fleeing his foster home on foot. Pain opens The Kid With a Bike when, angry but blindly hopeful, the 11-year-old protagonist repeatedly tries to escape from his foster home to look for his father, who appears to have abandoned him. He makes little progress until a kindly woman agrees to let him live with her on the weekends, and the two of them continue the search together, neither anticipating the stinging revelations this quest will bring.
The Kid With a Bike generates immense tension through Cyril’s journey, which navigates a world of adult responsibility (and irresponsibility) through a child’s eyes. We watch with bated breath as the events of the film lead him to seesaw between a life of promise with his new surrogate mother and one of despair and delinquency. As Cyril, Thomas Doret renders rage heartbreaking through the violence of his movements: running, pedaling, yelling, hitting. The Belgian Brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes have created an unconventional kind of action movie, driven not by plot but character, the type of cinema where kineticism of body mirrors that of the soul.
Eventually, we meet the father, along with a host of other characters who respond to Cyril’s inner turmoil in a variety of ways. In another movie, some of these people might even qualify as villains, but in the Dardennes universe, working class solidarity takes precedence over good-evil dichotomies; although we may prefer an individual character over another, the film maintains a sense of shared struggle. Even the shadiest personalities are granted humanizing narrative moments, as when the film complicates our view of a small-time gangster by showing him tending to his bedridden grandmother. Later, this same character will reveal himself to be a criminal and a menace, but this gentle, earlier scene preemptively softens our condemnation.
This relative even-handedness and ensuing posture of compassion is part of what makes The Kid With a Bike so refreshing. The film keeps its story rooted in the ambiguity of real-world ethics, making its characters feel uniquely relatable and the film nonjudgmental. And yet, the Dardennes’ picture also has a poetic streak that seems to take an aesthetic cue from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy: a visual canvas splashed with blues, raging reds (Cyril’s cherry-colored shirt is blindingly bright, drawing our eyes whenever it appears onscreen), and the implicit, tainted white of innocence lost. The film is almost entirely lacking in a soundtrack, but like in Kieślowski’s Blue, an orchestral leitmotif surges in at key moments as musical metaphor for emotional turbulence.
This melding of quixotic and quotidian imbues the film with a strange beauty, seeming to provide us glimpses of the fantastical within the everyday. By itself, the image of Cyril, a crimson sprite on wheels, is sufficient to make The Kid With a Bike visually unforgettable. But taken in the context of the film’s otherwise gritty style, it becomes an ode to the emotional vivacity that pulses beneath the veneer of our everyday lives; beneath our jobs, or school, or those kids roaming the streets whom we might dismiss as being “up to no good.” Inner life gets as much attention as its outer counterpart in The Kid With a Bike, and the result is something close to magical.