The case of the missing father
[ filmreviews ]
My companion Howard and I had arranged for tickets to see the Dardenne brothers' The Kid with a Bike at the Los Angeles AFI Film Festival in 2011, but at the last moment the festival switched the time of that movie with another, and we determined, to our disappointment, not to wait around to see the Dardennes.
I was joyful, therefore, to be able to see the film at the local theaters in March of 2012, particularly since, as readers of my reviews well know, I am a big fan of the Belgian film makers.
Although a bit smaller in scale than some of their other films, as well as missing some of the issues of race and immigration that underlay their other films, The Kid with a Bike is in keeping with their oeuvre, particularly L'Enfant and the father-son relationship in La Promesse. As in L'Enfant, where actor Jérémie Renier sells his newborn baby on the black market and later uses young boys to commit criminal acts, in The Kid with a Bike the same actor has rid himself of the burden of his son, Cyril (the charming Thomas Doret) before the film has begun, locking him away - at least that is the way Cyril sees it - in an institution for unwanted children. Apparently, it has all happened very quickly with little explanation, although we later comprehend that the father, Guy Catoul, has gone bankrupt and is without the resources and abilities to raise his son.
For Cyril, who clearly adored his father, the facts are nearly inconceivable; surely his father would not have sold his bicycle! And throughout the first third of the movie, Cyril tries to escape time after time, in an attempt to return to his original apartment, hoping to be reunited with his father. Tracked down by institutional officials, Cyril escapes into a doctor's office within the apartment building, clinging to a woman patient in defiance of their determination to again "imprison" him. Hoping to convince Cyril of his father's absence, the officials allow him to return to his apartment where he finds no sign of his former life, later discovering that, despite his disbelief, his father has actually sold the bike.
A day later, the woman patient, Samantha (Cécile de France), touched by the incident, arrives with the bicycle she has purchased back from the buyer, returning it to the boy. For the child, the bike clearly represents his only link with his beloved father and previous life, beautifully showing off his cycling skills to the woman before asking her to become his weekend guardian, to which she surprisingly agrees.
The search for his missing father, however, does not end, as Cyril tries desperately to track down his father's whereabouts. Finally, on one of his weekend visits, Samantha, who has gotten the father's address from the institution, arranges for a meeting between father and son, warning Cyril not to expect too much.
Whey Guy does not show up for their meeting, she doggedly visits his apartment where his current lover reveals that he is "setting up" her restaurant for the night's dinner crowd. Even at the restaurant, however, Samantha and Cyril are rebuffed. Although the boy sees his father inside through a window, Guy has turned on the music so loudly - evidence surely of his attempts to block out the real world - that he will not respond to their knocks. When they finally face off with the man through a back entrance, the father-son conversation does not at all go smoothly, as both try to briefly pretend that nothing has come between them. Cyril pleads with his father to take him back soon, or, at least, call him, carefully repeating his phone number at the institution. But it is painfully clear that he will do no such thing, and when Samantha returns to claim the boy, Guy takes her aside, demanding that she tell Cyril he must never come back, insisting that seeing his son is too stressful, betraying the selfishness of this man-boy who will not even consider what his rejection has done to the child. As she begins to drive away Samantha attempts to relay his dreadful message, but returns to demand the father tell his son himself what he has told her. Cyril hears the awful news stoically, but as he and Samantha begin to drive off, falls into a fit of self-destructing blows to his head. His face remains scratched throughout much of the rest of the film.
Lovingly, Samantha begins to try to restore some sense of love to the distraught boy - even though it costs her a own love relationship - but her attempts seem to fall on deaf ears. Although it is clear Cyril wants and needs her love, the only prize of his life comes from his past, in the form his bicycle, which local teens try to steal from him several times. This leads, ultimately, to a meeting with a man, Wes, who describes himself as "The Dealer," as he woos the young kid - whom he names "Pitbull," on account of Cyril's fierce fighting battles with those who would steal his bike. Slowly pulling in the young Cyril, in a scene that parallels exactly what a sexual predator might do to draw a victim closer (a grown man, he invites Cyril into his bedroom to play electronic games), Wes offers a place for him to stay and a kind of "brotherly" love missing from the boy's life.
Samantha is justifiably angry with Cyril's refusal to answer his phone during the games, and even more terrified by his encounter with "The Dealer." What she does not know is that the petty criminal is already plotting to use Cyril in a criminal action where he will hit a cafe owner over the head with a bat, stealing his daily earnings.
When Cyril attempts to leave the house, Samantha locks him up, even pulling him away from a second attempted escape from a second-story window. When he finally attempts to leave through her attached hair-salon, she pulls him back yet again, this time with his stabbing her in the arm with a shop utensil and escaping into the night.
Cyril nervously enacts the attack, but is forced to also bludgeon the man's young son when he suddenly appears on the scene. Since Cyril may have been seen by the son, Wes refuses to take the money the boy has stolen, rejecting Cyril and warning him that he will kill him if he involves the man in any way with the event.
Having now been rejected even by the outsider, Cyril returns to the restaurant where is father is chef, presenting him with a gift of his robbery, hoping, of course, to allow Guy to invite the boy back into his life. When his father yet again refuses to have anything to do with his son, sending back over the wall into the night, the boy Cyril drops the stash and rides off, returning to the only place he has left to go, Samantha's house. The police have been to see her, and with Cyril she drives to the station.
In the penultimate scene of the film, restitution is made: the money has been found and returned, "The Dealer" locked up, Samantha agreeing to pay for the father and son's hospital bill. Cyril is made to present a formal apology. The father accepts, but his son, who refuses the apology, has not joined him at the meeting.
Cyril has finally come to terms with his situation, his former violence qualmed as he joins Samantha for a bicycle outing and picnic, he agreeing to her plans for an evening barbecue with a young friend and their family. Sent out to pick up some charcoal for the grill, Cyril is accosted by the boy he has clubbed and is forced to escape back into the wooded area where "The Dealer" and his gang have a small shack. In order to escape his attacker's blows, Cyril climbs a tree, for which the other boy retaliates by throwing a rock which hits Cyril, sending him into a fall to the ground. Startled by the series of events, the attacker reunites with his father who demands they call an ambulance. At the same time, however, he cautions his son that if Cyril is dead, they should claim that the boy attacked him, instead of the other way around. Before the ambulance arrives, however, Cyril, still somewhat shaken, stands up. The cafe owner insists that he wait for the ambulance - he may have a concussion - but the boy refuses, moving off to his bike and purchase of charcoal, riding away, presumably to his new home and life.
Throughout this touching film, the themes have centered upon escape and an attempt to return to a world that no longer exists, both of which result mostly in violence and obfuscation. By film's end, however, the central character has discovered how to accept nearly unbearable facts, and with that acceptance has come a stronger love and sense of family that he had previously had. If the world seems cruel and unjust, so suggest the Dardennes, one can survive through faith and a belief in a new life. As usual, the filmmakers have transformed a realistically simple story, one that may occur thousands of times each day, into a kind of situational fairytale that helps us to find moral ground.