Dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
(2012, PG-13, 87 minutes)

The Kid with a Bike is as direct and straightforward as its title. It begins with Cyril (Thomas Doret), an angry, volatile child who defies his adult guardians to search for his father. His father has moved away, the grown-ups tell him, but Cyril doesn’t believe them. Cyril’s bicycle is missing, and when a local hairdresser, Samantha (Cecile De France), finds it and buys it back from its new owner, Cyril is even more insistent. The bike must have been stolen. His father never would have sold it.

In these opening scenes, we don’t see Cyril’s father, where he’s gone, or why, but it’s clear to us that he has no interest in fatherhood. It may even be clear to Cyril, who clings to denial, lashing out against all the adults in his life except the one who probably deserves it. Early on I felt sympathy with the adult characters, struggling to wrangle an irrational boy who reacts with hostility, even violence, against the people trying to help him. But these early, establishing scenes lead to an eventual visit with his missing dad (Jeremie Renier), whom Cyril finally tracks down, and their meeting has a crushing inevitability to it. My sympathy shifted to the boy.

The film is written and directed by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. I’ve seen their earlier film, L’Enfant, also starring Renier as a father looking to abdicate his parental responsibilities. I remember being disappointed by that film, though now I think I should revisit it. Their approach to this story is minimalist, subtly observant, intimate but unadorned. At 87 minutes, the film is a brisk slice-of-life portrait that shows, with touching clarity, how a child is abandoned, how he is vulnerable, and how his sense of trust is upended. After his father’s desertion, he has a choice between two different influences: Samantha, who becomes his part-time guardian, and Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a local thug who flatters him. The choices he makes are understandable, even when they’re lamentable; after a tectonic shift like the rejection of a parent, he has to relearn his relationships one mistake at a time.