The kid with a bike but without a dad.

I can’t claim I have seen that many Belgian films but I don’t recall seeing any that didn’t illustrate the dull (and mostly rainy) conditions of life in a post-industrial backdrop, if possible under poverty threshold. Some directors have chosen to laugh about it (such as Tarantino-esque “Man Bites Dog” (1992) by Benoît Poelvoorde or burlesque “Iceberg” (2005) by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy), others, like the brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, have decided to emphasize the misery to better reveal the humanity in their characters – ugly or pretty.

“Le Gamin au Vélo” or “The Kid with a Bike” (2011) by the Dardenne brothers makes no exception to the rule. It’s a moving story about Cyril (Thomas Dorey), a 12-year old kid abandoned by his dad (Jérémy Renier) and left to his own device in a foster home somewhere in Wallonia. Cyril is fortunate enough to be taken in on weekends by a generous and patient local hairdresser called Samantha (“femme forte” Cécile de France) but he is determined to track down his father to everyone’s puzzlement and despair. Right from the start, Cyril appears as a sullen and agitated kid with a plan. He’s completely fixated on finding his father, as if it was the latter who had gone missing. Perhaps because no-one starting from his father has cared to explain to him what was going on. Cyril’s relentless investigation on his bike and his surprisingly mature approach disconcerts the adults around him, who knowing the truth try to prevent his search from progressing. But truth will out and Cyril will have to learn to accept it.

“Le Gamin au Vélo” provides a fascinating and heartbreaking study of the successive irremediabe effects parental abandonment can have on a child. Incomprehension leads to denial, denial is followed by realization, depression and anger then violently kick in, on a slippery slope to self-destruction. Later, much later, a form of acceptance might slowly settle in, but the journey is guaranteed to be a long one. If you are lucky a fairy godmother called Samantha might pop up, in which case TLC shoud be able to heal the wounds – but expect a long, little rewarding emotional rollercoaster. The cruelty of the scene where Cyril’s cowardly father finally finds the guts to tell his son he doesn’t want to see him anymore, ever, is particularly tragic and yet totally believable. And that’s why Dardenne’s films are so powerful. They always seem unassuming from the outside, starting from their candid titles (previous films were called “Rosetta”, “L’enfant”/”The Child”) but the down-to-earth screenwriting always hits home and actor performance is truer than life.

A tough theme tenderly and skillfully rendered by the Dardenne brothers once again, which earned them the Grand Prize of the Jury at the last Cannes Festival, and a nomination for Best Film in a Foreign Language at the Golden Globes. Let’s forgive the Belgians for their love of social realism!

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