Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne seem to be constitutionally incapable of making a bad or even a mediocre movie. Even when they’re repeating themselves a bit—as they are in The Kid With a Bike, which echoes such past triumphs as Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002) and L’Enfant (2005)—their work is never less than tough-minded and engrossing, with a view of society’s margins that demonstrates great compassion without ever resorting to cheap sentiment.
Their obnoxiously resilient protagonist this time is 13-year-old Cyril (newcomer Thomas Doret), who as the movie begins does not, in fact, have a bike. Nor does he have parents, as his deadbeat dad (Jérémie Renier) has discarded him at an orphanage and moved away, changing his phone number and leaving no forwarding address. A chance encounter with a maternally minded hairdresser (Cécile de France) leads to a new arrangement in which Cyril spends his weekends with her, but the absence of a paternal figure makes him easy prey for a local teenage criminal (Egon Di Mateo), who flatters this vulnerable bundle of rage and raw nerves with cries of “respect!” and the nickname “Pitbull.”
The exploration of love and remorse that follows is wholly typical of the Dardennes’ work: at once tender and astringent, and replete with unexpected narrative detours. And Doret proves fearless, making Cyril a sullen, selfish, almost maniacal little runt, with a cuteness quotient of zero. Ultimately, The Kid With a Bike feels too familiar—relative to the brothers’ remarkable body of work, that is—to be truly exciting, but if you still haven’t discovered them, it serves as the perfect introduction.