If I told you The Kid With A Bike, the Grand Jury Prize winner last year at Cannes, is the story of a child who has been abandoned by his father and is then taken in by a woman he literally bumps into, I probably wouldn’t blame you if you rolled your eyes and said, “I think I’ll go see The Avengers.” And you might not be wrong, depending on your mood. But you’d be missing a little gem that holds out the radical idea that while the world is not a perfect place, it does hold goodness in it. The brilliance of The Kid With A Bike is that the directors and writers, the Belgian Dardenne brothers, slowly let the story unfold in such a way that the “big” lesson you learn is that it’s OK to believe in kindness. The idea of kindness is not presented in a perfect, tied up in a bow with syrup and cherry on top kind of way. But it is presented as a real, simple thing that doesn’t have to be explained with layers of analysis and back story, or even reasons for it.
It’s not giving away too much, I don’t think, to say that the story revolves a young boy named Cyril who has been abandoned by his father. Cyril won’t accept that his father has left him, and he definitely won’t accept that his father would have sold his trusty bike. Through the simplest of circumstances, Cyril crosses paths with Samantha, a single hairdresser, who recovers Cyril’s bike for him. After she does this for him, Cyril asks Samantha to look after him on weekends so he can get away from the foster home once in a while. Cyril still can’t believe his father would abandon him, but after tracking his Dad down, he is confronted by the harsh reality that his father’s life can’t involve him anymore. This all sounds pretty bleak as I type it, and to an extent it is. But Cyril is accompanied through all this by Samantha. The beauty of Samantha is that she simply comes into Cyril’s life and is there as his support. She is there with him. There is a scene in the film where Samantha’s boyfriend, upset and uncomfortable by the sudden appearance of Cyril into his and Samantha’s life, demands that Samantha choose between him and Cyril. Without hesitating, Samantha chooses Cyril. It’s a simple moment, and the boyfriend is here one moment and then simply gone. It’s a jarring and pretty radical moment in a movie world that would normally feel the need to have several back stories as to why Samantha would make a choice like that. Here, it’s simply put that there are people in the world who would make that choice and Samantha is one of them. There is a short feeling of being slightly disoriented, like you’re waiting for the big explanation. But, again, you realize as the film plays out that the point is that in a world where we readily accept cynicism and negativity, that it’s also OK to accept that Samantha exists.
All doesn’t go smoothly for Cyril, and as he begins to venture outside of his solitary world for more companionship, a series of events leads him away from positive social influences into the waiting arms of the local bad guy. The guy uses Cyril’s newfound willingness to be open and search out companionship against him and lures Cyril into committing a brutal act against a father and son. Here, the Dardennes clearly give a nod to what feels like their likely Catholic side. After Cyril commits this crime, another series of events occurs that explore the ideas of forgiveness, penance, guilt, and integrity, and that while you have to pay a price for your misdeeds, the world can still be a just place. Growing up Catholic, I certainly recognized every one of these themes. My Mom used to tell us a very Catholic thing, which was, “You have to eat a pound of dirt before you get to heaven.” Cyril learns this lesson both figuratively and literally. But in the end, he comes out of it alright, having Samantha to support him and show him how to love and that it’s OK to be a person who does all of that.
This is not a sappy film, giving off some sort of facile, naïve notion that things magically work themselves out. As the film moves along bad things happen, most of them caused by the constantly changing instincts and decisions of children. For Cyril, it’s not a great hand he’s been dealt. It’s not always a straight line for him and things aren’t always going to be perfect. But with Samantha in his life, it is going to be OK. For the audience, the comfort is in being reminded that there’s no miracle here, nothing needing some sort of radical explanation as to why Samantha does what she does. The radicalness comes in the simplicity of realizing that her kindness isn’t really all that radical at all.