The brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne work in a world of efficient drama. Their cinema is stripped of sentimentality yet still captures intimate moments with powerful focus that stays with a viewer long after leaving the cinema. Their spare films are experiences that stick like solid memories. You know when you have seen a Dardenne film. Characters suffer ordeals or undergo life changes that feel visceral and personal. Sometimes they are subtle (the titular character of Rosetta  undergoes a glimmer of change that may or may not help her rise out of a downtrodden life in a trailer park). Other times they are more dramatic (the main character of Lorna’s Silence  finds the strength and cunning to free herself from a world that could be considered modern slavery).
The Dardennes have a consistent style. Simple, sudden splices separate the scenes. There are no fades, overlaps or dissolves. Everything is shot on handheld high-definition digital cameras. There are no dramatic singular shots like swoops, zooms or close-ups. The soundtrack generally avoids non-diegetic music. When such music does appear, it stands out with potent purpose. Lighting seems natural and unfiltered. The actors have a natural style, and the Dardennes have been known to work with non-stars or non-actors. The brothers have never strayed from this style over the years. In fact, they have only perfected and fine-tuned it. The mix of these techniques effectively capture a austerity where only the drama of the situations influence the audience in an authentic and honest manner.
All the action that unfolds in a film by the Dardennes never feels superfluous. They build up the scenes with such efficiency that when the last few scenes arrive toward the end of the film, the balance of suspense fills you with anticipation. You begin to trust the Dardennes on an almost subconscious level. If a character goes off to do something seemingly banal, you know it will have to serve the story in some way. No moment is wasted in a film by this duo.
None of the Dardenne films I have seen have felt more tight and focused than the Kid With a Bike, which only now finally finds a distributor in IFC Films after sharing the 2011 Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. The film follows 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) on his quest for a father figure after his biological father (Jérémie Renier) leaves him at a boarding school. The insistent quality of this little boy is smartly established at the start of the film when he refuses to give up listening to an out-of-service message on the phone, as a school counselor pleads him to hang up the receiver.
Cyril feels kinetic, even while laying in bed. He always seems breathless. He’s a steadfast creature. When the neighborhood drug dealer Wesker (Egon Di Mateo) names him “pitbull” the name seems apt. The kid fights for his bike, his final connection to his AWOL father, with unrelenting zeal. Wesker preys on this fatherless child, inviting him to video games and soda at his apartment and soon devises a scheme that will harness this child’s peculiar energy. It’s an energy and drive familiar to many who are preyed on to enter gangs at young ages. The purpose in Cyril to impress a male figure in his life is so strong, it transcends criminal activity. He does not even care for a cut of the take from Wesker, telling him he’s only doing it for him because he told him to do it.
The boy is in deep pain, which comes out in equal parts aggression and aloofness, when it’s not focused on impressing Wesker or during the quiet bliss in the all too brief company of his actual father. On the receiving end of most of this misguided aggression is the boy’s foster mother, the hairdresser Samantha (Cécile De France). She hesitantly agrees to take Cyril in after helping the boy find his missing bike at the start of the film. He imposes himself on her, asking if she might see him on weekends. She cannot seem to help herself from saying “no.” She even helps Cyril track down his father, who only sees the boy as a burden he does not want. The film is as much about this woman’s courage to step in when the boy’s father decides to take the easy way out to “start over.”
Though the Kid With a Bike is the Dardennes’ tightest film, I have not seen them ever compromise their style for a pat ending. Though the boy seems to find some kind of peace at the film’s end, the Dardennes do not hold back throwing a monkey wrench into the story with a powerful finale that leaves the viewer wondering. The open-endedness of their films is also key to their style defined by their lo-fi cinematic style. The rawness of their movies seek to capture the sensation of true-life experience. Just as life goes on after one completes a phase in growth (however big or small that experience might feel), thus it goes on after the final fade to black in a Dardenne film. Just as you never know what might happen next with every moment in life, you never get luxuriated with the promise of a tidy ending in a Dardenne film. Life goes on and who knows what is next? Bring on another Dardenne film.
The Kid With a Bike is not rated, runs 87 min. and is in French with English subtitles. It opens in Miami Beach Friday, Apr. 6, at 6:45 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. It will play a series of dates as part of the theater’s on-going series “Les Freres Dardennes.” The series also includes one-night-only screenings of the above mentioned Rosetta (Thursday, March 29, at 8 p.m.) and L’Enfant, which also stars Jérémie Renier (Thursday, April 5, at 8 p.m.). The Kid With a Bike also opens in the Miami area at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, Friday, Apr. 6, at 7 p.m. and to the north, in Broward County, at the Cinema Paradiso, also on Apr. 6, but at 6 p.m.