In all likelihood, you probably haven't seen a film made the Dardenne Brothers, two Belgium filmmakers who consistently make films that earn raves and kudos at Cannes, the annual film festival held in the South of France. These raves and kudos propel their films into very limited release in the United States.
Their films follow two or three characters, usually living at the edge of or in dire poverty, as they deal with a small slice of their lives. Because the filmmakers concentrate the narrative on a small group of people and a small part of their lives, they are able to give us great insight into these characters, their actions and their motivations, making them very real.
Generally, I shy away from or downright dislike films with no narrative or an overt "Cinema Verite" style. And if the Dardenne Brothers' films can be labeled anything, it is "Cinema Verite". Their handheld camera weaves in and out of the confined living spaces, in and out of compact cars, watching the characters as they react or talk and then the camera jumps to the other person after they begin talking. This style of filmmaking is designed to give us the feeling we are eavesdropping, or spying. And by extension, this is supposed to make us feel like we are a part of the character's lives. If done well, it does create a heightened sense of intimacy. You feel the rawness of the emotion and the acting. If it isn't done right, the technique simply calls attention to itself. The Dardenne Brothers are masters of this filmmaking device, making us feel an intimacy with their characters most filmmakers are unable to achieve.
Cyril (Thomas Doret), a pre-teen who loves to ride his bike, has been abandoned by his father and now lives in a youth farm. He acts out, fights, and bites the counselors, because he is unable to believe his father moved away without leaving a forwarding address. Also, what happened to his bike? He tries to run away, only to be captured by the counselors again and again. Finally, he makes it back to his apartment building and manages to sneak in to his old home, only to find it empty and abandoned, just as everyone told him. When the counselors show up, they chase him through the building and Cyril literally latches onto Samantha (Cecile de France, "Hereafter"), the local hairdresser, and refuses to let go. A few days later, she shows up at the youth farm with Cyril's bike – she bought it from the kid who bought it from Cyril's father. And she agrees to take him on the weekends. He seems to be a lot happier with her, but also acts out because he wants to find his father. Samantha agrees to help find him and they eventually find the restaurant where he works. Guy (Jeremie Renier, "Potiche", "L'Enfant", "La Promesse") looks at his son with a scary detachment and asks Samantha to not bring him around anymore. Now that Cyril has heard this for himself, he acts out a bit more and then calms down, a bit. Riding his bike, he meets a young drug dealer who becomes a major influence on Cyril's life.
"Kid" is an interesting look at a young boy who lashes out against just about everyone. And he has every right to this behavior; his dad basically abandons him because he can't handle the responsibility, so he is sent to a youth farm. The farm doesn't seem to be a terrible place, it isn't home, but it isn't a Dicken's orphanage either; the staff seem to care about and take care of the kids. But Cyril has to see everything for himself. He can't take the word of others that his father has abandoned him. Who could? And when he sees the evidence for himself, you can see his heart break, which is quickly covered up by is young resolve.
Then when Cyril meets Samantha there seems to be a little glimmer of hope for him. She cares for and takes responsibility for him. She gives him a cell phone to use when he is visiting, so she can keep track of him and he can keep her updated about his activities. As a hairdresser, she has to work on Saturday, but her salon is downstairs, so it all seems to work out and they seem to be on their way to establishing a family life.
But Cyril has a long way to go before his behavior begins to change due to Samantha's influence. Too many years of Guy's neglect have left Cyril with the impression he has to fend for himself and he is a young boy, both of which explain his desire to be friends with the only slightly older drug dealer who entices him with video games and soda. The drug dealer quickly asks Cyril for help and he quickly agrees to help.
All of the actors are very good and help to establish and maintain the feel of Cinema Verite. For an actor, the key to this technique is to appear as natural as possible. Thomas Doret is very young and this is his first film credit. When an actor makes such an impression in their first film role, playing a character who seems so real, you have to wonder if they are acting at all or if they are simply channeling their own experience. I'm not sure, but Doret seems completely natural. Cyril is pretty street wise in many ways and completely unaware in many others making him seem like the young boy he is.
Cecile de France, who is most well-known for her role as the French reporter in Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter", is also quite good. In fact, she is far better in this film than in her big Hollywood debut. You get the sense she is juggling a lot in her life. When Cyril first meets her, she is waiting for a doctor's appointment and seems resigned and exhausted, yet this is all she has ever known, so she is used to it and deals with it. When Cyril enters her life, she welcomes him and recognizes he has many significant problems. Maybe she experienced some of the same things growing up and she can identify.
Jeremie Renier, who has appeared in many of the Dardenne Brothers' films, plays Guy, the dad who abandons Cyril. It is a brief role, almost a cameo, but completely convincing and adds a lot to the overall fabric of the story.
Is "The Kid With a Bike" the best film I have ever seen? No. It isn't even the best Dardenne Brothers film. The scope of the narrative seems slightly too confined. But is emotional and powerful and very convincing.