Suddenly abandoned by his father, a food prep at a third-rate restaurant, Cyril (Thomas Doret) falls under the care of a kind hairdresser named Samantha (Cécile De France). Like Truffaut’s Wild Child, Cyril knows neither restraining or civilizing force. The first ten minutes are a whirl of activity: the camera follows him at the camp for foster children to his father’s fifth floor apartment, a bakery, and the lab where his first impression of Samantha is of having met his match in strength and resilience. In his red T-shirt speeding past us on his bike, eyes thrust forward, he’s a vortex of fury. I’ve balked at the Dardennes’ infatuation with naturalism — they’ve read too much Zola and not enough Balzac — but in The Kid with a Bike form and content fuse into a film of staggering economy. The directors explain nothing — no sententious speeches by Samantha or social workers on first causes. They respect what film does best: character through action. When helping set the table Cyril asks Samantha why she volunteered to take care of him, she says “I don’t know,” and the Dardennes respect her answer.
Also, the decision to eschew closeups and frame him in medium shots keeps Cyril at a distance and sentimentality at bay. Violence happens, neither celebrated nor lingered over: Samantha’s arm gets pricked by scissors and an older man gets swatted with a baseball bat and it takes milliseconds for the shock to register. It’s most effective in a kitchen between Cyril and the father who didn’t want to be found. We know before Cyril that with each half-muttered promise the not much older man moves further from his son, further from us. Casting Dardennes favorite Jerémie Renier, who played the young man who tried to sell his child for cash in 2006’s L’Enfant, is the only wink the directors allow themselves. We don’t know whether a long scene in which a drug dealer about Cyril’s age with slicked hair takes him back to his apartment for soda and video games will end with the goon recruiting Cyril or seducing him (the Dardennes include a brief moment of the dealer helping an immobile grandmother back into bed after she’s fallen; there’s another movie right there). The film’s last eight minutes suggest how young Thomas Doret would make an incorrible Terminator should Hollywood come calling.