There have been many classic foreign films about scrappy kids left to their own devices, from Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows to Hector Babenco's Pixote.
But the Belgian filmmaking team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne seem to specialize in the theme and with their latest, The Kid with a Bike, they paint a tough but touching portrait of one such boy and his struggle to create a family where there hadn't been one.
When we meet Cyril (Thomas Doret, giving a strong, almost feral performance), he resides in what seems to be a cross between a boarding school and a juvenile detention center. He spies a window of opportunity and runs away to find both his deadbeat dad (Jeremie Renier, who's been the Dardenne brothers' muse since he was a teenager), who he delusionally believes will suddenly step up and be responsible, and the bicycle that is his link to freedom - and that his despicable father has sold.
The school's staff finally corner Cyril in the lobby of a medical office. He realizes he's trapped and in desperation, grips his arms around the legs of Samantha (Cecile de France), an unfamiliar woman who just happens to be in the building. The intensity of the encounter has emotionally gripped her as well and, when she visits Cyril one day, she responds affirmatively to his sad-edged question, "Will you take me on weekends?" Her new role as surrogate mother (which is a nagging narrative question, yet not to the extent that it devalues the movie) is not without its problems, though, as Cyril has been damaged by his shoddy upbringing and tends to act out by abusing himself and others.
Seeing a movie by the Dardennes is like being dropped on the periphery of real people stuck or floundering in often tragic situations; their films aren't exactly uplifting. But this filmmaking style can be riveting, and the always get the kind of solid performances from their actors where you don't see the acting. The Kid with a Bike makes you care about this boy and the woman who sees his salvation even though he's blind to it.