Belgium’s most acclaimed directors (there is not much competition other than Chantal Akerman) have a remarkable talent to tell small-scale stories of ordinary people, in a deeply humanist and sympathetic manner, without resorting to mawkish sentimentality or emotional exaggeration. And ‘The Kid With A Bike’ is another great example of this.
Thomas Doret is Cyril, a 12-year old boy who is in social care, having been abandoned by his father, who has also taken his precious bike. He is a highly compelling character, and Doret’s performance is excellent. Along with emotional and anger issues, he is untrusting of all those around him who are trying to care for him. Yet he remains completely devoted to his father, despite being deserted by him, and sets out to try to find him. He is like an unruly but faithful dog, who cannot help but return to his mistreating owner.
Into this comes Samantha (Cécile De France), who firstly returns Cyril’s bike which had been sold by his father, but then increasingly spends more time caring for him. However, Cyril’s turbulent behaviour means that his progress is never straightforward.
One issue raised gently by the film is whether he should be blamed for his behaviour. Is he product of the environment in which he grew up, one without a mother, and a father who cares little (if anything) for him, or is he someone who does not – perhaps even refuses to – learn from his mistakes. The film is very delicate on this issue, leaving it in the background behind the drama, to be thought about at the audience’s discretion.
The film is equally delicate in its use of symbolism. Cyril’s red jumper and red hair are indicative of his pent-up anger and rage that he struggles to contain. This rage is present intermittently, but during one scene when Cyril turns on Samantha violently, the avoidance of sentimentality makes the emotional punch even stronger. The most significant symbol in the film however, is his bicycle, demonstrative of his freedom and liberty.
In this respect, the film is highly evocative of Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece ‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948). In that film, Lamberto Maggiorani’s central character Antonio is only able to get a job because he has a bicycle. It liberates him, and offers an opportunity for him to escape the life he would otherwise be trapped in. Here, Cyril’s bicycle represents an alternative form of liberty, a more psychological version, but one that also offers the opportunity of escape. Whilst on his bike, Cyril is able to mentally leave behind the other, more painful elements of his life. He becomes free of other people, and can go where he wishes, even if that destination is well-chosen.
While the comparisons to Bicycle Thieves are self-evident, there is one other film that The Kid With A Bike is reminiscent of: Shane Meadows’ excellent ‘Somers’ Town’ (2008), a film with a fantastic performance from a young Thomas Turgoose, that is too often over-shadowed by Meadows’ previous (and equally excellent) ‘This Is England’ (2006). Both films tell stories of children abandoned by their parents, learning life on tough urban streets. And both films are too-often over-looked in favour of previous work from the directors.
Having said that the film is over-looked is not to say that it is not highly regarded. It won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival – in essence the ‘runner up’ to the Palme D’Or (the Dardennes have the rare honour of having won the Palme D’Or twice) – which that year went to Terence Malick’s ‘The Tree Of Life’ (2011). Both films have important matters that they wish to address, but despite the beauty of Malick’s vision, for me ‘The Kid With A Bike’ is far more successful in getting its message across. (However, both were slightly overshadowed by Lars Von Trier’s nonsensical ramblings about Nazis that year.)
Perhaps The Kid With A Bike does not get the full attention it deserves because it does not have a grandiose vision, like the aforementioned The Tree Of Life. But what The Kid With A Bike does do, is what cinema can do at its humanist best: offer a sympathetic view of individuals in different circumstances to yourself, and a window into their otherwise unknown lives.