Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are frequent favorites at the Cannes Film Festival. They’ve been nominated for the coveted Palme d’Or prize five times so far, and have won twice (for ‘Rosetta’ in 1999 and ‘L’enfant’ in 2005). The brothers’ new Neorealist drama ‘The Kid with a Bike’ scored the Cannes Grand Jury Prize earlier this year, and arrived at TIFF to some rapturous critics’ reviews and a lot of buzz among attendees. All of this attention and hype almost seem disproportionate to a movie made with such modest ambitions.
‘The Kid with a Bike’ is a very small, delicate story about a young boy whose mother has died and whose cold-hearted father has abandoned him to an orphanage and moved away without even bothering to tell him. The boy is too naïve to understand such selfish behavior, and assumes that some huge mistake has occurred to take his father away from him. He refuses to believe his caretakers or teachers at the orphanage, the superintendent of his old apartment building, or any other adult figure who tries to explain to him that his dad is basically a jerk. Against all of their wishes, he searches day after day to find his missing father.
This puts him in the orbit of an adult woman (Cécil De France, from ‘Hereafter‘) who feels sympathy for him and agrees to take care of him on the weekends. She doesn’t fully understand why she’s so drawn to this child, but she knows that helping him is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, this decision causes some strife with her boyfriend. The kid also starts hanging around with a bad crowd – who are essentially the only friends he’s ever had, and for whom he’s very eager to please – which will cause some unexpected and unwanted repercussions for him.
However, there’s no great melodramatic tragedy here. This is simply a well-observed character piece. The performances, especially young Thomas Doret’s, are very naturalistic. The Dardennes direct with a carefully-modulated sense of tone. One quite refreshing aspect of the film is the way that the script sets up what appear to be familiar and predictable story pathways, only to carefully (without any particular revelation or twist) work its way out of them in a manner that always feels plausible and real.
For all that, I feel that the movie has been over-hyped a bit, at least in the context of film festival coverage. More than one critic writing about TIFF called it a masterpiece. I wouldn’t go that far. It’s a very nice, charming and touching film, but it doesn’t exactly reinvent cinema. Of course, it never set out to. Nor does it need to.