The experience of watching a Dardenne brothers film is an experience that’s unlike any other. Towards the end of their new film The Kid With a Bike, I was holding my breath as 11 year-old tearaway Cyril (astonishing newcomer Thomas Doret) found himself in a series of perilous situations. By this point, I’ve seen enough of the Dardennes’ work to know that this is exactly what they do, and that their ability to spin nerve-grabbing drama out of seemingly humdrum situations is unparalleled in modern cinema. But the question of how exactly the Dardennes achieve this time and time again remains a mystery to me. They are capable of making us care - really care - about the fate of their characters in a manner that very few filmmakers can accomplish, and they do it without blatant appeals for audience empathy.
In fact, the sense of connection that we always feel with a Dardennes protagonist is even more surprising when you consider how often they are presented as troublesome, even unlikable characters. Think of Bruno, the irresponsible father from the Dardennes’ L’Enfant, or taciturn carpenter Olivier, from The Son, who becomes unsettlingly fixated on a young apprentice working for him. In The Kid With a Bike, the main character is a child abandoned by his father and staying in a care home, but this is not a cute little moppet capable of instantly disarming the audience.
Cyril is an intense, aggressive tyke who refuses to bow to authority figures and responds with punches and kicks to any who try to keep him under control. He is a ball of restless energy who races from one location to another and hurtles through doorways, with his habit of being in a state of perpetual motion informing the pace and style of The Kid With a Bike, as the Dardennes' camera races to keep up with the young protagonist. Cyril seems utterly fearless, but there's something so vulnerable about him too, and an aching need for a father figure that he is all too aware of. Cyril refuses to believe that his father has abandoned him, despite all evidence to the contrary (he has changed his phone number and moved without leaving a forwarding address), with the child pleading, "He would have brought my bike," as he clutches onto his futile hope of a reconciliation.
Cyril's father is played by Dardennes regular Jérémie Renier (it's tempting to view The Kid With a Bike as a companion piece, if not a quasi-sequel, to L'Enfant). It is of course an awful thing for a man to reject his own child, but the Dardennes don't judge him, as they refuse to judge any characters in their films. Everyone who appears in a Dardenne brothers movie is a real person, with complicated emotions and valid reasons for behaving the way they do. As Guy washes his hands of his parental responsibilities, another character steps into the breach, with Cécile De France's hairdresser Samantha taking an interest in Cyril after he literally crashes into her during one of his many flights from school. She offers to take care of him on weekends. A tenuous bond develops between them, initially prompted by Samantha's retrieval of Cyril's beloved bike.
The fragile and complex nature of human relationships is what the Dardennes capture better than anyone else. We never know for sure why exactly Samantha feels compelled to take on this damaged, unpredictable, sometimes near-feral boy, but we never doubt for a moment that the feelings she has for him are genuine. Likewise, we fully understand why Cyril becomes so attached to Wes (Egon Di Mateo), the local dealer who exerts a Fagin-like influence over local kids. Coming from the same background as the lonely youngster, Wes is a perfect substitute father figure for Cyril, even if we can smell trouble from the moment he appears on the scene.
I won't tell you exactly what sort of trouble Cyril gets himself into, except for the fact that it develops in a fashion that feels surprising and yet entirely natural. It's also absolutely riveting, with the climactic stretch of the film causing me to gasp and reducing me to tears on more than one occasion, and the Dardennes' ability to affect me so deeply without cheapening their film with a single ounce of sentimentality is testament to their brilliance. The Dardennes invest their films with such compassion, honesty and hopefulness that it becomes impossible to not care about the story being told. They are contemporary cinema's great humanist filmmakers, and as such, they remain in a league of their own.