Review by © Jane Freebury

Any kid with a bike is a kid who understands what it’s like to feel free. The kid in this fine film, a runner up at Cannes last year, had a bike until his father sold it, left the boy in the care of an institution, saying it was only for a month, and then disappeared.

At first sight Cyril (Thomas Doret) is on foot, trying to reach his father’s flat which he eventually discovers has been vacated. Neither at this point nor at any other is the boy in flight from cruel treatment. Except for the taunts of a local gang involved in petty crime, most people show him kindness and behave decently towards him.

However, after the boy has seen the incontrovertible evidence of his father’s betrayal – an advertisement in a garage window offering Cyril’s bike for sale – he turns into a small fury, a desperate fugitive. In order to escape his carers in hot pursuit he enters a medical practice and attaches himself, limpet-like, to a young woman in the waiting room.

It is Cyril’s good fortune that Samantha (Cecile De France) responds to the startling violence of his need. Most other young protagonists in the tough and uncompromising oeuvre of filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Cannes festival favourites, are not so lucky. Like the young woman in Rosetta desperate to escape a future like her alcoholic mother’s and  the homeless couple and child in l’Enfant. Samantha turns up at the boys’ home with the bike in her boot, having asked a few questions and bought it back from its new owner. Cyril senses he has a chance and bluntly asks her to take him on weekends. To his, and my, and possibly everyone else’s surprise, she agrees.

Unlikely surrogate parent-child relationships on screen are not unusual, but this one has a particular quality that is in part the result of the filmmakers’ naturalistic, non-sentimental aesthetic, and De France getting it just right. Samantha has acquiesced but she will be no pushover. She set the tone with a matter-of-fact manner and her own emotions don’t come into it, and she makes a surprising spur-of-the-moment choice about her personal life. I guess we can all debate the ‘limits’ to unconditional love but it made me query her motivations. With no hints as to where she’s coming from, her character may be in a sense symbolic.

With music inserted briefly at four (if I counted correctly) key points in the narrative, this new Dardenne film displays the filmmakers’ strengths – the deceptive artlessness of their style and the haunting predicament of their characters. This time they have added a rising inflection to their statement about the plight of youth. It helps.

In a capsule: A fatherless boy, destined for a life of rootlessness and petty crime, forms a bond with a young woman that may just give him a new chance at life. Impressively naturalistic, but carried ultimately by the outstanding performance of the young actor at the centre of the frame.

4.5 stars