By Chaz Lipp
I honestly don’t think I’ve seen such single-minded devotion to the pedaled mode of transportation name-checked in the title of The Kid with a Bike since Pee-Wee Herman went on his Big Adventure. The Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have crafted a generally light-hearted tale from potentially dark, depressing subject matter. The focus of this 2011 film is a 12-year-old boy named Cyril (Thomas Doret) who has recently been abandoned by his father, Guy (Jérémie Renier). His dad was no prize to begin with, as Cyril lives in a facility for foster children.
Guy has begun the process of eliminating Cyril from his life completely. He has moved to parts unknown, going so far as to sell his son’s prized bicycle. When informed of this, Cyril goes berserk. He feels the need to visit his father’s vacated apartment himself, just to be sure. He won’t accept that his dad would sell the bike, insisting it must have been stolen. We don’t know what happened to his mother, but we do know that his father has had a limited presence in his life. Now he wants to remove himself entirely and start over. As the betrayal slowly sinks in, Cyril’s confusion is heartbreaking.
Enter Samantha (Cécile de France), a thirtysomething single woman with whom Cyril has a chance encounter in a doctor’s waiting room as he’s running from his foster home caretakers. He throws his arms around her, clinging to this stranger as if she was the mother he never had. She reacts calmly, gathering just enough to understand that the boy’s bike is missing. Rather than shake off the brief meeting as a bizarre interruption, she manages to track down the “lost” bike, buying it back from the new owner. “Your father sold it to him,” Samantha tells him. “He’s lying,” Cyril curtly replies.
Eventually, with the help of Samantha, Cyril comes to face the fact that his father will no longer be part of his life. The Kid with the Bike examines the positive and negative forces that compete for a child’s innocence. As Samantha’s involvement in Cyril’s life increases, he still seeks a father figure. He finds one in Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a small-time hood who pretends to befriend neighborhood kids in order to use them for robberies and such. This forms the crux of the “purity versus corruption” theme that runs through the film, leading some observers to regard it as a kind of modern-day fairy tale.
The entirely believable performance by first-timer Doret is key to why Bike, which is more straightforwardly optimistic than some of the Dardenne’s films, is so effective. As we learn in a new interview with the young actor, the Dardenne’s cast Doret after a single, brief audition. Without consciously trying to win our sympathy, he does anyway, thanks to his effortlessly natural portrayal. As Samantha, de France is more inscrutable (the character was written as such) but we never question her unblinking loyalty to the boy she grows to regard as a son. Though his screen time limited, Renier also leaves an impression as Cyril’s deadbeat dad. As with the rest of the cast, he underplays to create a believable portrait of a still relatively young man who selfishly shuns his own flesh and blood, preferring to hit a “reset” button than to take even the slightest interest in his son’s well-being.
Criterion’s Blu-ray offers a crisp 1080p transfer that was supervised by cinematographer Alain Marcoen. The 35mm cinematography takes on documentary-style realism, entirely fitting for the style of storytelling. Cyril’s red shirt boldly stands out, as do the greens of the foliage many scenes are set amongst. The audio is equally naturalistic and subtle, with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that eschews flashy surround effects in favor of solid, centered dialogue supported by commonplace ambient effects.
In addition to the typically excellent booklet, Criterion’s extras package includes a 73-minute interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Combined with new interviews with cast members Doret and de France, plus a 30-minute segment in which the Dardennes return to key shooting locations, the supplements should satisfy even the film’s most ardent supporters.