(Le gamin au vélo)

Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Belguim/France/Italy. 2011.

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An 11-year-old on the edge

In The Kid with a Bike/Le gamin au vélo the Dardenne brothers are on strong familiar ground depicting a troubled boy struggling to get attention from his derelict, immature dad and tempted to a life of crime by an older boy who exploits him. The actor who plays the boy is a newcomer, 13, Thomas Doret, and he's excellent, if quite uncharming and uncute. Cécile de France adds her usual perky good looks and soul. Dardennes regular Jérémie Renier (who debuted in their first important film, the 1996 La Promesse) plays the absent dad. It's all fine, and as serious and solid and morally intense as all the Dardennes' films are. But it adds nothing much new except the focus on a small, feisty, fiendishly determined boy. Rosetta (1999) has the same kind of determined quest, with an even more obsessive thrust. The Son (2001) has a more emotionally intense picture of forgiveness, also a theme here. It might be fair to say this is "better" than the Dardennes' 2008 Lorna's Silence, which wemt into new territory with illegal immigrants, some think resulting in the brothers' "weakest" film. On the other hand though it's in competition there, probably the Dardennes won't win a third Cannes Golden Palm with this fine but famiiar effort.

What's so great with the Dardennes is the irresistible force of the chase, the hunt, or whatever is going on in the somewhat dogged narrative at hand, and a use of actors and non-actors so seamless that one never has a chance to stop and think "this is a movie." This time the pursuit is the search for his dad of 11-year-old young Cyrille (Doret), who's without his bike at first, because his father has sold it and run away. Cyrille himself runs everywhere at top speed, dashing out of a home for boys (the film's precipitous opening scene) and out of the clutches of nearly all adults who cross his path, forcing his way into the flat his dad formerly occupied, finally learning the name of the restaurant where he's now a cook and going there. Somehow, just by latching onto her when he's on the run, he gets semi-adopted by Samantha (Cécile de France), who's a hairdresser. A movie blurb says she's an "unqualified childcare provider," presumably because she's young and single. But she's quite affectionate and also tries to discipline the boy -- and also forces his dad to tell Cyrille in person and not just through her that he won't deal with him any more, not even see him once a month. Samantha agrees to watch over Cyrille on weekends. She's not unqualifed at all, but a saintly woman with tough love. Cyrille, however, is more of a handful than she realized.

She helps the boy confront his dad. This truth -- that this isn't a relationship that can be renewed -- makes Cyrille throw a temper tantrum in Samantha's car when it's over. But he remains mostly angry, not sad, and he's going to need to find an outlet for this anger.

With a bike again, Cyrille often has to fight to grab it back from bad Cité boys who ride away on it (he lacks a chain and lock), and after one such fight he impresses some boys so much they shake his hands with the one word salute, "Respect!" and nickname him "Pitbull." One of them, the older, gangsterish Wes (Egon Di Mateo), makes friends with the boy, inviting him to his flat and room and letting him play a video game and giving him a Fanta. Wes' niceness has a selfish motive. He trains the angry, preternaturaly violent Cyrille to carry out an assault and robbery. This leads to sad results. The issue is whether Cyrille can be saved from drifting into full-on, active bad-boy mode. We don't know how it's going to go, but the film ends on a note of hope.

I learn from Peter Debruge of Variety that De France is originally Belgian, like the Dardennes, and so is reverting to her original accent in this film, set in the brothers' usual Belgian town of Seraing. As both De Bruge and Mike D'Angelo of Onion AV Club say, De France blends in selflessly with the non-actors or newcomers in the film. She has'nt anything significant to do -- except co-star in a Dardennes movie (which, come to think of it, is pretty significant). It will be very surprising and disappointing if we don't see more of Thomas Doret. His intensity is riveting, and he and Cécile, with the help of the Dardennes and Alain Marcoen's (for these filmmakers) smoother-than-usual camerawork, never let us look away or remember this is anything but real life.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes' Le gamin au vélo, in competition at Cannes, seen in Paris May 18, 2011, the day of its French theatrical release.

(I was right that the Dardennes wouldn't get a third Palme d'Or. But Cannes still understandably loves them, and they co-won the second highest Cannes award, the Grand Prix, sharing it with Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.)

Chris Knipp

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Chris Knipp

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