Criterion // 2011 // 87 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 25th, 2013
From the masters of the empathetic action film.
"This was all your idea."
Cyril Catoul (Thomas Doret) is a young boy who has just been abandoned by his father Guy (Jeremie Renier, In Bruges). Adding insult to injury, Guy sold Cyril's bicycle for a few quick bucks before he took off. Determined to find an explanation, Cyril begins an urgent search for his self-serving dad. Meanwhile, Cyril is looked after by the affectionate Samantha (Cecile de France, High Tension), who tries valiantly to prevent the boy from falling in with the wrong crowd and from getting his hopes up about reuniting with his father.
If there's one trait that tends to define the protagonists of the films of The Dardenne Brothers, it's a sense of urgency. The Kid with a Bike's title character is a relentlessly focused central figure who is constantly pushing forward towards his assorted goals. To be sure, some of his missions are deeply misguided (and even dangerous), but once he sets his mind to something he doesn't look back. He is so restless, in fact, that he eventually wanders into what feels like an entirely different movie. He is prone to making the sort of mistakes that one only makes when afflicted with just the right blend of innocence and rebelliousness. His journey is an unpredictable and ultimately rather rewarding one.
The first half of the film is essentially the melancholy tale of a child attempting to cope with the fact that he is unwanted by his father. Cyril tends to be cynical about many things, but somehow manages to believe the best in his father. He initially refuses to believe that Guy could have sold his precious bicycle. When he's presented with evidence that contradicts his belief, he immediately concludes that his father must have had a very good reason. Cyril is a sharp kid, but he's willing to turn a blind eye to all of his father's shortcomings for the sake of clinging to the belief that he still has a parent who cares for him.
Of course, Cyril is also seemingly blind to the fact that Samantha treats him with the care and love that every child needs. She's not his mom, so he shrugs off her generosity. And yet, when a local gang leader named Wes (Egon Di Mateo) slyly offers Cyril some orange soda and an afternoon of Assassin's Creed, the young lad offers the gang leader his undying loyalty. Wes' arrival heralds the film's second half, a tension-filled morality play that offers a demonstration of the horrible things people will do for the sake of self-preservation. In the hands of lesser directors, this transition might have felt awkward, but the Dardennes make it feel like an entirely organic part of Cyril's journey. I won't spoil the film's ending, but I will say that the last scene wraps things up with indelible grace.
The handheld cinematography only adds to the sense of urgency, and to the illusion that the filmmakers are simply following their character wherever he may go rather than dictating his steps. Cyril remains the center of attention at all times -- even when he isn't onscreen, he's the subject of conversation between other characters. Doret's unaffected, convincing performance goes a long way towards making the film as engaging as it is, and the grown-ups along the way provide exceptional support. I was particularly taken with Cecile de France's turn as Samantha; a paragon of gracefulness in contrast to the stubborn kid she looks after. Additionally, Jeremie Renier turns in an exceptional portrait of self-loathing sleaze as Cyril's deadbeat dad.
The Kid with a Bike (Blu-ray) has received a sturdy 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. Despite the fact that the film employs handheld cinematography, it has a rather attractive look and makes the most of its distinctive locations. Colors are bright and vibrant, flesh tones are natural and detail is terrific throughout. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is quiet, but effective, delivering the dialogue with clarity and mixing in some spare sound design and classical music selections effectively. Supplements include a fascinating, remarkably lengthy 74-minute interview with the Dardenne Brothers, a 19-minute interview with Cecile de France, a 6-minute interview with Thomas Doret, a 34-minute "Return to Seraing" featurette that examines some specific scenes in the film, a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Geoff Andrew.
The Kid with a Bike is another fine effort from The Dardenne Brothers, a gentle and absorbing tale told with skill and honesty. Criterion's Blu-ray release is a typically strong package. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13