The Belgian brother filmmaking team of Pierre and Luc Dardenne have one of the most unadorned styles in modern cinema — low key performances, minimal use of music, no fancy cinematography or editing — and yet their stories have a way of burrowing deep into the consciousness of a viewer.
The Dardennes make movies that are ‘simple’ only on the surface.
Like the directors of the Italian neo-realist movement in the years after World War II, the Belgian duo give their socially conscious productions the feel of documentary realism, but they clearly do a prodigious amount of planning and shaping to make their movies look so effortless.
The latest Dardenne film, “The Kid with a Bike,” follows a pre-teen boy named Cyril (Thomas Doret) who has been placed in some sort of facility by his single father, Guy (Jeremie Renier), a young man either incapable of caring for the boy or simply disinterested in fatherhood (we never really get to know his motivation).
Cyril spends the early scenes trying to find the bike his father appears to have sold when he moved on to a new job and a new life. The boy finds an ad for the bike and tracks his father down. He gets his bike back but little comfort from his dad.
Meanwhile, Cyril attracts the attention of a nice single beautician — Samantha (Cecile DeFrance) — who starts inviting Cyril for weekend visits to her home (the state facility encourages this policy in the hopes that it will place some of the kids in foster homes).
Samantha grows closer to the boy at the same time that Cyril finds a unfortunate father figure in her neighborhood — a young hoodlum/drug dealer who cozies up to the boy in order to recruit him for petty thefts.
The Dardennes never push emotional buttons in a blatant way but a viewer’s anxiety level begins to increase as we fear the worst for Cyril.
“The Kid with a Bike” isn’t a downer — the boy is very lucky to have found Samantha who we can see is up to the task of battling negative influences — but it has a fairly open-ended conclusion that you can interpret in several different ways.
As is so often the case with their juvenile performers, the Dardennes work wonders with the young actor Thomas Doret, who carries the movie on his small frame without ever striking a false movie-kid note (this is the sort of ultra-realistic child performance that is virtually inconceivable in a Hollywood production).
(“The Kid with a Bike” is now available on DVD and many of the major movie streaming services.)