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'The Kid with a Bike': A simple story with a lasting impact

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Fri March 16, 2012
Thomas Doret and Cecile De France star in
Thomas Doret and Cecile De France star in "The Kid with a Bike."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "The Kid with a Bike" has simplicity fused with moral force and emotional gravity
  • In the movie, Cyril escapes a children's home and is desperate to get back to his father
  • When he finds the apartment empty, he runs headlong into the arms of a stranger

(CNN) -- Hollywood excess is always an easy target, as the reception to last week's "John Carter" shows.

But it's worth remembering, simplicity is hard. The simplicity fused with moral force and emotional gravity that brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne bring to Cannes Grand Prix winner, "The Kid with a Bike," is a rare and beautiful thing.

The Belgian siblings have forged an impressive foothold in the international cinema scene over the past 15 years or so, with a brand of rigorous, concerted neo-realist tales like "Rosetta," "The Child" and "The Son" ("Le fils") that focus on marginalized, working class characters trapped by poverty and circumstance, but occasionally within spitting distance of something that can only be described as grace. As those titles suggest, children and parental bonds are a recurring theme, and they are paramount again in "The Kid with a Bike."

Twelve-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) is a blonde urchin with a face that looks like it has already had too many tears squeezed out of it. When we first see him, he's planning his escape from a children's home. He's desperate to get back home with his father, and refuses to believe it when they tell him the ne'er do well has taken off with no forwarding address.

Alas, when he does get away, the care-workers' story checks out: Their apartment is empty, even Cyril's most prized possession, the bike his dad gave him, has gone. It's at this moment, when the boy is trying to avoid recapture and deny the extent of his abandonment, that he runs headlong into the arms of a stranger, Samantha (Cecile de France). He clings on so tight that something clicks inside her, and she decides she cannot let him go.

Over the following months, Samantha brings Cyril his beloved bike and persuades the authorities to allow the boy to visit with her on weekends. She'll track down his father (Jeremie Regnier), and insist they meet. (The spineless wretch won't even admit to the boy that his dad never wants to see him again.) She'll even furnish a home for Cyril, even though he's scarcely capable of acknowledging his gratitude. Still, the most severe tests of her love and compassion lie ahead.

Cecile de France is careful not to play a saint. In some ways Samantha may be at the mercy of her resolution, it's certainly a hard road she chooses. But then, how do you put a price on a sunny summer bike ride with a child who loves you like a mother?

Speaking as a parent, "The Kid with a Bike" is sometimes almost unbearable to watch. Not for the common cruelty of Cyril's neglect so much as the Dardennes' keen perception of his vulnerability to evil. The boy craves respect. He's easy prey for an older teen, a youth who grants him privileges that no parent can compete with, and demands loyalty and self-sacrifice in return.

It's a straightforward moral schema, but a perennial story of innocence and corruption that resonates intimately with the world at large. And in this telling, it's as compelling as any thriller.

There is not a wasted shot in this stripped down, pared back fable. Yet, it accrues a deep and lasting power. You won't see many better this year.

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