Last week we saw a small-scaled film from New Zealand, “Boy,” that told a story of an 11-year-old lad whose ne’er-do-well father abruptly returned to his life. That one was poignant and funny.
The subject is inexhaustible, and this week the distinguished Belgian filmmaking brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, return to it with a much more somber outlook. “The Kid With a Bike” is about another boy, signed over to a state facility by his ne’er-do-well father, who desperately tries to re-connect with his dad.
The kid is Cyril (Thomas Douret), whose behavior is full of the kind of lashing-out and hostility you’d expect from a boy whose father has abandoned him without even saying goodbye. The father even sold the kid’s bike, a betrayal Cyril refuses to believe until he investigates and finds irrefutable proof of his father’s behavior.
The father (played by Jeremie Renier, who starred in “L’Enfant” for the Dardenne brothers) will be located. It’s in keeping with the Dardennes’ style of filmmaking that the father-son reunion turns out not to be the ultimate goal of the movie, as it would be in most versions of this story line — this film will go other places, other directions.
One direction is that a stranger, a hairdresser named Samantha (Cecile de France, from “Hereafter”), agrees to host Cyril on weekends. Given what a handful he is, this is a huge commitment, and Samantha pays a price for caring about this difficult kid.
But then she seems to have that rare commodity: actual empathy, the ability to imagine what it must be like to be in someone else’s shoes. And perhaps she senses that the only chance Cyril will have to develop empathy himself is if she shows him what that behavior looks like.
None of this is told to the audience; the Dardennes don’t do that. They show scenes, usually shot in an un-insistent way, without music or dramatic close-ups, and completely without speeches that tell us what to think or feel.
The result of that approach is a quietly devastating movie.
The Dardennes have cited the great Charlie Chaplin classic “The Kid” as one of their favorite films, a story about an orphan adopted by a tramp. “The Kid with a Bike” might be their variation on that, except the kid in question is much more troublesome, and there’s no slapstick comedy.
Both films are about the power of kindness, especially in childhood, and what a difference it can make.
“The Kid With a Bike” (3½ stars)
A boy has been abandoned by his ne’er-do-well father and lashes out in expected ways against the group home and the guardian (Cecile de France) who takes him in. This film from the Dardenne brothers is quietly devastating, a real study in the power of empathy and kindness, even against difficult odds. In French, with English subtitles.
Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for violence.