Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, filmmaking brothers from Belgium, have been quietly churning out masterpieces for decades with their distinct brand of spare, naturalistic cinema. Tackling family and social struggles in lower class Belgium, their films—like Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), and The Child (2005)—have received widespread critical praise and garnered numerous awards at the Cannes Film Festival, where their latest, The Kid with a Bike, won the Grand Prix in 2011.
Now playing in limited theaters and on demand in the U.S., Bike—in French with English subtitles—is like many of the Dardennes' films: It's a deceptively simple and yet powerfully humane portrait of children and parents, set against the downtrodden urbanity of a contemporary Europe haunted by the vestiges of a Christian past. The film is a clear riff on Vittorio De Sica's Italian neo-realist masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves (aka The Bicycle Thief, 1948), which also explored issues of family and economic struggle in urban Europe. Both Bike and Bicycle are about a father, his son, a bike, and a search. But where De Sica's film is about a man and his boy searching a city (Rome) for a bike, the Dardennes' film is about a boy who finds his bike early in the film and then rides it around a Belgian city, searching for his absentee father.
The boy in Bike is 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret), a freckled, strawberry blonde rapscallion who's quite the handful: he bites, he bolts from authorities, he can't sit still. He's the epitome of unsettled. In the film's opening shot, Cyril is on the phone trying to get in touch with his absentee father (Jérémie Renier, a Dardenne regular), but there is no dial tone. The tragic one-sidedness of this summarizes Cyril's plight: he needs a father and wants so much to receive his father's love, but there is no answer on the other end.
We learn that Cyril's father recently dropped him off to live in a juvenile home, promising it would just be for a month. In reality he wants nothing more to do with his son ("I want to start over," he eventually admits), and yet Cyril holds out hope that they'll be together again. It's painful to watch as Cyril pursues his father and yet gradually comes to realize that his father doesn't reciprocate any interest in a relationship. Cyril, like all of us, has a deep need for a father, or a mother—for someone to love and look after him. Who will that be for him? That's the real search of this film.
Thankfully, along the way, Cyril bumps into Samantha (Cécile De France), a kind, thirtysomething hairdresser who agrees to be his foster parent. She takes him in and loves him unconditionally, even if he's a bit of a pill (he's the kind of kid who turns the water faucet on harder after he's told to turn it off). For Cyril, Samantha is a literal Godsend; without her seemingly random appearance, his tenuous path would have taken him who knows where. Among the film's many merits is the way it compellingly illustrates how vulnerable kids like Cyril often end up with the wrong crowd while trying to find a community that cares. Samantha is an angelic protector doing her best to keep Cyril from such things, wrestling him away from the door at one point to keep him from going out at night to meet a shady gang leader.