We need to talk about Cyril. He is the kid in The Kid With a Bike, and he's got some issues. A pale, sinewy 11-year-old, he's been discarded by his parents at a Belgian boys' home. He's almost feral: He scampers away from his state-appointed minders like a frightened rodent, biting and clawing at anyone who threatens to separate him from his beloved bicycle. A local street tough watches Cyril fight off a would-be bike thief and awards him the nickname "Pitbull." It's an alias that speaks to his toughness, but also to his desperate, doglike need to feel loyal to someone. Soon, at the hoodlum's request, Cyril is waiting in the dark, ready to bash the owner of a newsstand in the head with a baseball bat.
Usually, this would end up either a grim tale of lost youth or a saccharine redemption story. But The Kid With a Bike is the work of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, filmmakers noted for both their sensitivity and lack of sentimentality. The feeling one gets from the brothers' movies is the one that Roger Ebert found in the films of John Cassavetes: the impression of raising the curtain on a play already in progress. It's life presented as-is, without cinematic manipulation, the sense of empathy coming only from the directors' humane touch.
When the curtain is drawn back on Cyril (superb first-timer Thomas Doret), he is in the midst of an act that has become a troubling habit: dialing his father's disconnected phone line, hoping someone will eventually pick up. He clings to the myth of his dad (Jérémie Renier) coming to claim him like a war orphan running to the door every time a car pulls up outside. When he finally tracks his father down, with the help of a kind hairdresser named Samantha (Cécile De France), the deadbeat barely bothers to turn down the shitty club music he listens to while prepping the restaurant where he works. No longer able to delude himself, Cyril comes to terms with his abandonment, but that hardly makes things easier. As usual with the Dardennes, The Kid With a Bike doesn't assure the audience everything will be OK; it only offers hope.
But that, sometimes, is enough. The last we see of Cyril, he's on his bike, disappearing around a corner. The curtain lowers, but the play continues.
SEE IT: The Kid With a Bike opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.