'The Kid With a Bike'

Courtesy of Wild Bunch

With customary restraint, the Dardenne brothers have added another exquisite entry to their masterful body of work with this heartrending tale of a young boy.

As movie titles go, The Kid With a Bike could hardly be more direct and explicative in its unadorned simplicity. Which is a perfect encapsulation of any film by the resolutely unshowy maestros of humanistic portraiture, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Back at the festival that has already crowned them with two Palme d'Ors (for Rosetta in 1999 and The Child in 2005), the Belgian siblings are again at the peak of their powers in this impeccably observed drama.

Few, if any, contemporary filmmakers can match the Dardennes for unstinting compassion, rigorous avoidance of sentimentality and unimpeachable emotional integrity. Their films can grab you by the throat and thrust you into a state of abject despair. But they are no less persuasive when they surprise you -- and they always do -- with their unshakable faith in the human capacity for hope and redemption, a quality that has earned them comparisons to Robert Bresson.

On a craft level, the writer-director team's films have become more refined over the years, swapping some of the visual rawness of early features like The Promise for a startling crispness here. Cinematographer Alain Marcoen's colors practically sing while remaining utterly naturalistic. But the more polished style has done nothing to compromise the purity of the Dardennes' work. There's not a superfluous gesture or a redundant line of dialogue in Bike. Nor is there an image held for a second too long, including some gorgeous extended tracking shots. Everything here is 100 percent in the service of character and storytelling.

The opening has the visceral charge of a great chase scene as 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) makes a mad dash to evade his counselors and flee the children's home where he has been placed temporarily. In his first screen role, the remarkable Doret bristles with anger and flailing determination; this wiry, red-haired kid conveys a desperation that is shattering. Cyril makes it as far as his father's old address but finds the apartment empty and his bicycle gone. When staff from the children's home track him down in the building, he clings to Samantha (Cecile de France), a hairdresser waiting in a doctor's office, for protection.

Touched by the child's need, Samantha finds his bike and delivers it to the children's home, where Cyril overcomes his inability to accept affection long enough to ask whether she would agree to foster him on weekends. Being back in his father's neighborhood stirs up painful feelings, and when Samantha tracks down the missing parent (Dardenne regular Jeremie Renier) and takes Cyril to see him, the rejection is crushing.

What follows is not a conventional chronicle of a troubled child scarred by abandonment issues, learning to experience the unfamiliar sensations of love and trust, though to some degree, that happens. Instead, it's a robustly plotted and highly suspenseful battle to save uncontrollable Cyril from self-destruction. He threatens to spiral down an irreversible path of corruption when his feistiness gets the attention of Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a local drug dealer and thief looking for fresh lieutenants.

The sense of danger is intense, and the cool detachment with which the filmmakers show how easily savvy criminals can charm and seduce troubled kids into their employ is chilling. There are many heartrending sequences, but perhaps the most plangent of them is when Cyril offers the proceeds of his first robbery as a final attempt to get back into his father's life. Without ever articulating it in words, the film illustrates with wrenching effectiveness every child's primal hunger for parental love and acceptance.

Marking a rare use of music in a Dardenne film, a handful of key moments are sparingly punctuated by brief bursts of mournful Beethoven. Edited with fluid urgency by Marie-Helene Dozo, the film navigates with extreme grace its transitions from sorrow to tenderness to distressing violence before finally taking a gentle step toward healing. That most overused term in the therapy handbook notwithstanding, there isn't a single unearned emotion in this tremendously moving drama.

Kindness is evident in even the most hurt or exasperated moments of de France's lovely performance as Samantha. But then, kindness couched in unblinking social realism is an intrinsic part of how these supremely gifted filmmakers view the world.

Venue Cannes Film Festival, Competition
Cast Cecile de France,Thomas Doret, Jeremie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione, Egon Di Mateo, Olivier Gourmet
Writer-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Producers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Denis Freyd
No rating, 87 minutes