Neely Swanson

“The Kid with a Bike”: no answers, only questions [MOVIE REVIEW]

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cecile de france

Cecile de France and Thomas Doret star in “The Kid with a Bike”

“The Kid with a Bike,” written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is a stunning film that asks more questions than it answers – and most of those questions begin with “Why.”

Cyril, placed in a farm run by child protective services for what was supposed to be a month while his father got his life in order, is convinced that his father will soon be coming for him. But the month is up and Cyril’s father has disappeared without a forwarding address. Increasingly agitated and angry, Cyril is convinced that everyone is lying. With a raw determination in his eyes, Cyril bites and scratches his way to an escape and travels to the town where he lived before he was sent away. Arriving at his apartment, he discovers that his father left, stripping the apartment bare and leaving no forwarding address. Cornered by the janitor and staff who tracked him from the school, Cyril runs into the ground floor medical clinic. Upending chairs and other patients, he grabs desperately onto a woman who has fallen to the floor in the chaos. Screaming, sobbing that his father would never have left without returning his bike, Cyril is dragged back to the “farm.”

And it is from this chance encounter that a new journey begins. For no explainable reason, or perhaps it is one of those “random act of kindness” moments people speak of so often but rarely encounter, the woman, Samantha, a hairdresser in the village, appears at the “farm” with Cyril’s bike. Savage in both his heart and his manner, Cyril, still blindly devoted to a selfish father, is markedly ungrateful but in a moment that reveals a crack in his protective wall, he reaches out to Samantha, asking that she foster him on weekends. Never demanding anything in return, Samantha patiently begins to nurture the child living within the beast.

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No explanation is given for Samantha’s actions and she is played straightforwardly by Belgian actress Cecile de France. In her hands, there is no need to ask what motivates Samantha, she just does. Originally written as a physician, the Dardennes realized that there is more strength and complexity in the unselfish actions of the common man, or in this case woman. France, who originally had many questions about her character was directed to just relate to the child and not judge. So often in life there are no answers and there were no answers here. She is the spiritual center in the battle for the soul of a child being pulled into the abyss. Jérémie Renier is thoroughly convincing as the blandly evil father willing to abandon an inconvenient son.

But the true wonder of the film is Thomas Doret, in his first film appearance, as Cyril. A truly great performance, Doret’s first moments are searingly frightening – a wild, caged animal whose desire to escape exceeds any hope of self-preservation. He is that feral animal trapped and willing to gnaw off his foot in order to gain freedom; a child without a moral anchor trying not to drown even as he determinedly and consciously makes self destructive choices. Doret delivers a performance reminiscent of the lonely, charming, pathological child in Truffaut’s masterpiece “The 400 Blows.” The final freeze frame of that character, Antoine Doinel, when he realizes he has temporarily escaped and yet has nowhere to go encapsulates the potential direction of Cyril’s life.

Where and how did they find Doret? How can one so young produce such raw, real emotion? As much as I marvel at the bravura and bravado, I shudder to think of the psyche of any child portraying such passionate distress. It’s hoped that direction has come some distance from the time when Jackie Cooper, a child star in the 1930s, was brought to tears by the director who told him his dog had been killed. More than likely, however, Doret is a protégé and quick study who, as the Dardennes noted, was present throughout the long rehearsal process and on set every day during filming, often helping others with their lines.

This amazing film of loss and discovery will change you – a rare occurrence these days. Don’t let it leave without you.

Opening Friday March 16 at the Landmark Theatre in West Los Angeles.

Neely also writes a blog about writers in television and film at


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