Trying to escape his schoolteachers, a boy playing hooky bursts into a clinic’s waiting room and randomly tackles a woman sitting there, clinging to her as if she’s an anchor that can keep him from being swept away. As it turns out, this might be close to the truth.
In “The Kid With a Bike,” winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the boy is Cyril (Thomas Doret), an 11-year-old living as a ward of the state. His single father, Guy (Jérémie Renier), has dumped him into the system. Of his mother there’s no mention.
As for the woman in that waiting room, she’s Samantha (Cécile De France), a hairdresser. And she does something very unusual: she recovers the bicycle that Cyril’s father has sold to a neighbor and delivers it to the boy at his school. Then Cyril does something even more unusual. He abruptly asks Samantha if he can stay with her on the weekends. Most unusual of all, Samantha says yes.
This latest film from the Dardenne brothers (“Rosetta,” “The Son”) is full of such little leaps of faith that seem so strange that they come close to the texture of real life. Not everything is explicable. And there’s no obvious reason Samantha should befriend this boy. Cyril, still reeling from the desertion of his father, is a handful. Shrill and lacking any impulse control, he lashes out at the world with an infantile fury. But he’s also desperately hungry for any sort of approbation or love.
There’s a heartbreaking scene in which he visits the restaurant kitchen where Guy works, and the son watches his father’s every mundane move as if he’s witnessing something magical. He doesn’t see what Samantha can: that Guy can’t wait to be rid of the boy, who ties him to a past that no longer interests him. It’s no wonder, then, that Cyril is emotionally available — a neon target, even — for the gang of older boys who lurk around Samantha’s neighborhood, looking for someone to enlist in their schemes.
I’ve had mixed reactions to previous Dardenne films. I liked “La Promesse,” wasn’t crazy about “The Son,” hated “Rosetta.” At times, the directors’ hand-held, slice-of-life aesthetic can seem punishingly austere, their view of “real people” verging on the patronizing.
“Kid With a Bike,” though, seems to breathe a little more deeply, while still sharing the Dardenne aesthetic for simplicity. Young Doret and De France share believable moments both of tenderness and painful conflict. There’s only one scene, involving Cyril and a baseball bat, that seems physically implausible — a necessary plot point that moves the movie toward its end.
But it’s a minor misstep. In the end, “The Kid With a Bike” tiptoes to the brink of tragedy, which makes its grasp at redemption all the more effective.
“The Kid With a Bike.” Starring Thomas Doret, Cécile De France. Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. In French with subtitles. Unrated. 87 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.