Cannes has been extraordinarily kind to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, having awarded them the Palme D'Or twice (in 1999 for Rosetta, and in 2005 for L'Enfant). And even though their 2008 effort, Lorna's Silence, failed to nab any prizes from the Cannes jury, it was still met with plenty of acclaim. Jump forward to May 2011, and the directing duo added another prize, tying for the Grand Prix (Cannes' second place award) with Turkey's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. That's not too shabby considering the multitude of talent that comes to Cannes annually as part of the international festival circuit. But when you've built up so much prestige, that nagging little question emerges: is all of it earned? Tough to say, but at the very least, The Kid with a Bike is another strong entry in the Dardennes brothers' filmography, even if it has the sort of minor flaws that might make one question its second place triumph at Cannes last year.
The plot, as per usual with most of the Dardennes' work, is fairly straightforward: Cyril (Thomas Doret), abandoned by his father, tries to find him, while bonding with a woman named Samantha (Cecile De France), who becomes his foster mother of sorts. And to be perfectly frank, it doesn't get much more complex than there. Samantha's motivation for taking Cyril in is never really sketched out, but by the time the film is over, it's not the sort of question that really requires an answer. This is a simple, upfront tale of social interactions in the vein of De Sica's classic The Bicycle Thief. Despite the young boy at the center of the tale, it's not meant to tug at heartstrings, but rather present a level-headed depiction (one that can, at times, veer close to being too clinical) of its subject matter.
And for most of the runtime, that's really all the film needs. The Dardennes, who also wrote the film, never once indicate that they might pull out an absurd twist of any sort. Their concern lies strictly with the characters, which is for the best considering the film's slightly distant tone. Yet even said distance doesn't prevent The Kid with a Bike from achieving its own emotional potency, albeit in a rather muted fashion. When Cyril's father (Dardennes regular Jeremie Renier) rejects him, the boy begins hurting himself in Samantha's car until she intervenes and holds him while he cries. It's all done in a single, simple, backseat shot, with barely any of the actors' faces exposed, yet it still rings true, and it's all done with out hysterics or overbearing music.
So even though the film's plot becomes more predictable as it goes along, the Dardennes' smooth pacing and honest tone mostly offsets this. That is, except for the handful of spots where the Dardennes seem to have become a tad lazy. So much of the core relationship - that of Cyril and Samantha - is wonderfully structured. By contrast, Cyril's involvement with local misfit Wes (Egon Di Mateo), comes off as rushed. Thematically it fits with Cyril's rebelliousness and desire for a father figure, but the lack of any scene to bridge the two encounters is offputting. Most of the scenes between the two boys are perfectly solid, though, but the transition from their first encounter (which ends with Samantha telling Cyril to never speak to Wes again) to their second is so abrupt that it threatens to undercut the relationship between the two boys. Likewise, some of the developments in the last 10 or 15 minutes, in stark contrast to nearly everything that come before, happen so quickly as to cause whiplash. The film has another small issue in the music department. There's less than a minute of music on the soundtrack, and it all comes exclusively from Beethoven's 5th piano concerto. There's nothing wrong with the piece itself, but rather how it is incorporated: 4 insertions at key emotional moments throughout the story. Beethoven's music, beautiful and grand though it may be, feels wildly out of place with the bare-bones storytelling and cinematic technique, and one has to wonder if the decision was made by someone other than the Dardennes themselves.
These blips in storytelling aren't, however enough to sink, or even significantly hinder the film as a whole. The Dardennes latest is a low-key, down-to-earth childhood drama that successfully explores the themes that it sets out for itself. The acting all around is strong, with De France's lovely turn easily being the standout. And despite the aforementioned issues with the screenplay, the Dardennes have proven that, even though this may not be quite up there with their best work, they're still two of world cinema's most insightful and valuable voices.