Cyril (Thomas Doret) knows his dad didn't just leave him at a group home and move away with no plans of coming back. He certainly didn't sell Cyril's bike, despite the reports of another neighborhood kid riding it. Cyril doesn't give up, even when confronted with an empty apartment and no forwarding address, not even when he reads the old flier advertising his bike for sale in a gas station window. But for all his force of will (you can literally see it as he hurtles forward, leading with his forehead everywhere), he is all of 11 or so. When it becomes plain even to him that his dad isn't planning on coming back anytime soon, all he has left is his reclaimed bike and a kind, single thirtysomething-going-on-fortysomething hairdresser named Samantha (Cécile de France) who, pretty much at random, agrees to foster him on weekends. And if Cyril's barely bottled hurt and rage aren't likely to cause him enough trouble, the attentions of minor local hood Wes (Egon Di Mateo) don't bode well either.
Belgian writer/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been over these grotty side streets before in films such as The Son and The Child. As much as it continues in the same fashion as their previous films, The Kid With a Bike brings to mind/nods to a few other finely observed urban realist gems, specifically Vittorio De Sica's 1948 Bicycle Thieves and Francois Truffaut's 1959 The 400 Blows. As both films are generally considered timeless cinema classics, this takes some stones. And yet The Kid With a Bike doesn't disappoint in their company.
Pinning your film almost entirely on the performance of an underage newcomer takes some stones as well. Fortunately for the Dardennes, and for you, Doret's performance devastates. Showy emotionalism wouldn't do for this resolutely deadpan film, or for this character; for most of The Kid With a Bike, Cyril toggles between stone-faced hostility and implacable tantrums. But it's really the Dardennes brothers' deftness in setting up the heartbreaks in their script that makes the most of Doret's work here. Cyril's implacable forward motion is often so intent that by the time you spot the vulnerabilities in his motives it's too late to put your guard up. For all his outward toughness, he's still a child. When his handsome, shiftless father (Jérémie Renier), tracked down at last, feeds Cyril a line about needing to get some money together before they can be reunited, you hear a line. Cyril, on the other hand, detects a glimmer of hope.
When Cyril is desperate, Wes is there. An extended scene where the young hood turns from bully to solicitous boon companion unnerves—again, hungry-for-attention Cyril takes things at face value while it's hard for you not to suspect the worst of Wes. Sure enough, his motives aren't entirely altruistic, nor law-abiding. But Samantha is there too, and, in a studiously unsentimental way, that counts for something. As key as Doret's performance is, the film wouldn't work without de France (familiar here for a palette of roles in films as varied as L'Auberge Espagnole, High Tension, Mesrine), whose character grounds Doret's in a number of ways. And as implausible as her kindness is in some respects, Samantha is too bra-straps-showing genuine and unshowy to ever seem like a screenplay construct. She isn't perfect, but she understands that she needs him long before he realizes that he needs her.
For all its social-services realism, The Kid With a Bike flirts with melodrama as it builds toward its climax by toggling between the tenacious grip of Cyril's brief entanglement with street crime and the growing bond of his relationship with Samantha. The Dardennes seem headed for an ending along similar lines to the bleak gut punches doled out by Bicycle Thieves and The 400 Blows. And then, at the last possible moment, they drop your jaw with something entirely different, entirely in character, and entirely their own. You have to marvel at it. If it wasn't clear before the final minute, it becomes so then: The Kid With a Bike is a modest masterpiece.