Sibling Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne bring their customary immediacy and unsentimental compassion to this naturalistic fable of an innocently furious at-risk kid (Thomas Doret) who finds himself abandoned by his dad (Jérémie Renier) and taken in, practically at random, by a surrogate mom (Cécile De France). This lithe and solemnly kinetic little-blond-boy hero seems like an obverse of Spielberg’s depthless Tintin; his story is conveyed through rivetingly decisive moments of indignant determination, guileless self-deception, and touchingly credible moral reckoning.
I should note that I have a good friend who got fed up with this movie, fast. He couldn’t stand the kid — all that lashing out — and kept wanting to smack him. I advised my friend never to see “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” although maybe he should for a contrasting example, and advised myself never to hire him as a babysitter.
Back to the tale at hand. Where’s his actual mother? Don’t know. Why’s his father such a deadbeat? Not sure. “Seeing him stresses me out,” he says of the boy. Renier, a Dardenne regular, also played a guy who sold his infant to the black market in their film “L’Enfant”; he’s weirdly good at this. And what motivates the adopting angel? Well, here’s where it gets interesting: Maybe she’s just a decent person. To suggest as much without getting all smug and treacly about it, and without ruining the viewer’s good faith, is a lot harder than it may sound. Even Sandra Bullock probably would say so.
De France holds the movie together without taking it over. It’s still about the kid — and of course his bike, which, like his father, keeps getting away from him. The point is his refusal to let go, and how to accommodate it. It’s actually his idea for the woman to take him in: Having fled his state-run group home, chased by counselors into a clinic waiting room where she just happens to be, he grabs her impulsively, clinging as if to his own life. “You can hold me,” she says, “but not so tight.” Later, an aggravated lover tells her it’s him or me, and her revelatory response is another of the movie’s miraculously subtle turning points. One more is the development by which a local tough (Egon Di Mateo) admires the kid’s tenacity and grooms him as a petty criminal. No, that doesn’t go well.
The magic of the Dardennes’ frugal style is an apparent detachment that gradually reveals itself as complete commitment. Long, nonchalantly attentive takes, punctuated only by a few choice bits of Beethoven, allow for great clarity of human expression. This all rather unabashedly suggests the influence of Robert Bresson, and a death-and-resurrection motif only reinforces that quasi-religious Bressonian exaltation. But “The Kid with a Bike” is too directly articulated and too contemporary to seem derivative. And transcending ancestral inheritance, after all, is what it’s about.