Boys with Bikes

By Tim Winterstein

How do filmmakers do the kind of thing that makes a movie great? No doubt, there’s an artistry that can’t necessarily be defined. The great ones just do it well. But there’s technique that serves the artistry, and that’s something that I want to understand better. So I have a half-fulfilled desire to watch movies that people say are great. (Even so, I’ve only seen about a third of the AFI’s top 100.)

Ranking is necessarily subjective, but the Criterion Collection seems more like a constantly shifting museum, cataloging the films that change something significant about the world of film. So when they launched the Criterion Channel on April 8, with digital access to the Collection, I was hooked—at least for 30 days! There are films I’ve wanted to see but couldn’t find on other streaming services. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking is on my list, some Hitchcock and Dreyer and Bergman, and a couple by the Dardenne brothers. (I wrote about the Dardennes’ The Child here.) 

The Kid with a Bike (2011, streaming on the Criterion Channel or for rent on Amazon Prime) is much like The Child in that I wasn’t sure it would pay off. Is there going to be something more than a recognizable narrative of apathetic parent(s), a neglected and desperate child, and the explosive results of combining those? We can see that already all around us, in the wreckage that has been left by the sexual revolution.

So I was waiting for, really, the reason for telling this story in this way. Cyril is played by Thomas Doret as if he were born for the role. I believed every second that he was this kid. At times, he is all fiery and fierce anger; at other times, he is apathetic and listless; at still others, he is eager to please. It’s a story that could have been (and probably has been) told in a thousand other ways. But this story, of this kid, requires the Dardennes’ insight into people and families holding themselves together in the midst of an upside-down and destructive world that often makes no sense at all.

And, as with The Child, everything builds to the final minutes. It builds, piece on piece, seemingly haphazard, but intentionally driving toward the resolution. At first, it seems as if the resolution is going to come as Cyril, chastened and punished from his violent misdeeds earlier, is riding his bike with Samantha (Cécile de France), who has basically adopted him. They are happy, planning for that evening, and if this were a different kind of film, the final scene would show them at their backyard barbecue with friends, happy ever after.

But this isn’t that kind of film. [SPOILERS AHEAD]

Cyril goes to a gas station to find charcoal for the barbecue and finds himself being chased by the son whom he hit with a bat, and from whose father he stole money. The father has forgiven Cyril, but the son refuses. And as he throws rocks at Cyril in a tree, and Cyril falls, I expected Cyril to be dead. The father and son expect him to be dead. But almost miraculously, Cyril comes to after a few minutes, seemingly unharmed except for a few scratches. The father says that they should call an ambulance, but Cyril says no, collects his bike and the charcoal, and rides off around the corner.

Christians might be tempted to see a Christ figure in Cyril in his apparent death and miraculous “resurrection.” But he is much more a figure of a Christian than of Christ. He, like us, is a combination of his nurture (or lack thereof, in his case) and his own choices. And just as The Child ends with a shocking and offensive scene of forgiveness, The Kid with a Bike shows a death and resurrection that leads to a new kind of person: the person who both takes responsibility for his past actions, as well as not holding others’ sins against them. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Cyril cannot be otherwise than he is; he can’t go back and correct his father or his own actions. But he has actually been changed. And he’s been changed by the unconditional and unaccountable love of Samantha.

There is literally no reason (within the world of the film) why she should take him home, on the weekends at first, and then, it seems, permanently. He asks her at one point why she let him come to her house, and she says, “You asked me.” His request was the cause of her hospitality, but it doesn’t really explain it. And even when he bites and stabs her, she still welcomes him back. I have some more films by the Dardennes on my list, but I suspect the theme of unconditional forgiveness will reappear.

Whether they themselves are Christians (I have no idea), they present a fundamental Christian theme that is almost shocking every time it appears in the real world. Why were people so impressed when Amish families who had lost their daughters to a school shooting forgave the shooter? Why were people impressed with the members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, when they forgave the man who came into their church and started shooting? It is, in part, because that kind of forgiveness must be other-worldly. It certainly doesn’t come from within us naturally.

And if the Dardennes are not Christians, these are, nonetheless, the sorts of films Christians should be making: the sort of story that is bound to this world as it actually is, but with hints of something outside this world; stories told within the ambiguity produced by sin-wrecked people acting in a sin-wrecked world. Because if the problem of sin can be simplistically isolated and identified, and then overcome in 90 minutes when everyone gets saved, there is something basically untrue about that. It’s only when sin and evil remain essentially opaque to us, but depicted concretely and realistically (which does not necessarily mean gratuitously or graphically), that forgiveness, salvation, or redemption can seem realistic. The Kid with a Bike is that kind of story.