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Review: The Kid with a Bike

The latest Dardennes film is small-scale but forceful.

The Kid with a Bike (12A)
dirs: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

The Kid with a Bike puts its own modest spin on Bicycle Thieves, that defining work of Italian neo-realism. Instead of a father and child searching for a missing bicycle in Rome, we have a child on a bicycle searching for a missing father in Liège. The hardships are comparable even if the scenery manifestly is not.

Cyril (Thomas Doret) is a stub-faced 11-year-old with darting, disconsolate eyes and a sprig of ginger hair. He lives in a children's home but spends most of his time trying to find his way back to the father who dumped him there. When trapped, Cyril will do whatever it takes to escape: he'll bite, punch, kick or stab his way out of any corner. He scales fences and trees, and even clambers out of a fairground ride that has begun its first revolution.

The red T-shirt and tracksuit top that he wears in most of the film suggest a visual joke about his velocity; this furious blur of a boy is like a stop light that's always on the go. When he finally falls asleep or passes out, it's as jarring as if the Tasmanian Devil were to grab 40 winks in a hammock.

Thwarted at first in his attempt to trace his father, Cyril blunders into a doctor's waiting room and clings to the first person he knocks over. That's Samantha (Cécile De France), the manager of a hairdressing salon. As luck would have it, she happens to possess the space and the inclination to allow this not-undemanding lad to stay with her each weekend. The ease with which Samantha accommodates her new ward is a trifle disconcerting. You may harbour suspicions about her agenda for some time before it hits you that, yes, the film-makers really do regard her as a beacon of uncomplicated beneficence.

While in Samantha's care, Cyril falls in with Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a tough-nut with slicked-back hair and delusions of Fagin. Wes is a proxy father no less likely to punish or abandon Cyril than his biological one. This is the way the waffle crumbles when you are a character in a film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian brothers who combine the solemnity of Robert Bresson with the social conscience of Ken Loach.

Only seven directors can claim to have twice won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and the Dardennes are two of them. The Kid with a Bike, which had to make do with second prize at last year's festival, is typical of their work.

It's set in the defeated Belgian suburb of Seraing, where the directors were born. It employs a predominantly handheld camera, which stalks the actors so doggedly that the cinematographer risks incurring a restraining order. And it concerns a disenfranchised outcast buffeted by fate - see also the protagonists in the directors' Palme d'Or-winners, Rosetta (a penniless girl scratching around for menial work) and The Child (a thief who sells his own newborn son).

The Dardennes will never make a film featuring CGI monsters or intergalactic spacecraft; there's even a nice joke gesturing toward this fact, when a playmate urges Cyril to join him at the cinema because "it's in 3D and it'll be fun". Nevertheless, their work is as formulaic in its way as any Michael Bay IQ-killer. Doubly so in the case of The Kid with a Bike, which follows a narrative template (pure-hearted child lured off the straight and narrow) that has been road-tested in everything from Dickens to Loach's Sweet Sixteen.

There is a structural drawback, too: the perils of the criminal life can hold little horror when we've already seen Cyril endure a painful meeting with his pitiful father (Jérémie Renier) early in the movie. Nothing else can look quite so terrible after that.

Although minor by its directors' standards, The Kid with a Bike has its share of emotionally forceful moments, all of them attributable to little Doret's controlled performance. And there's a small but noteworthy anomaly: the use on the soundtrack of a single Beethoven phrase to bestow something like sanctity on any image it accompanies. It provides the one surprise here, music in the Dardennes' work being generally as rare and incongruous as square wheels on a bicycle.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible