Fraternal filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, whose Belgian drama The Kid With a Bike (2011) opens this week at Music Box, are justly celebrated as masters of social realism. Movies like Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), and L'Enfant (2005) are immersive experiences, arriving at powerful epiphanies through their off-hand observation of working-poor characters. The handheld camera work, some of the most spontaneous in contemporary movies, creates the impression that we're racing to catch up with these people, an effect that's only enhanced by the brothers' tendency to elide any moments of downtime. And because their characters come across as genuine people, viewers can forget these films are actually written, designed, and directed.
On the other hand, genre storytelling informs the Dardennes' art as much as any tradition of realism. The Kid With a Bike, about an abandoned boy and the foster mother trying to help him, makes a powerful statement about the plight of unwanted children. But it also incorporates elements of melodrama, film noir, and even the fairy tale that engage our empathy and confirm the Dardennes' great compassion.
The film's central relationship is heavily influenced by the melodramatic tradition. Eleven-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret), having fled the orphanage where he was deposited by his deadbeat dad (Jeremie Renier), ducks into a medical office where Samantha (Cecile de France) is waiting for an appointment, and he clings to her piteously as counselors from the orphanage try to pull him away. Samantha helps him track down his cherished bicycle, which his father has sold for easy cash, and eventually arranges to become Cyril's foster mother (the Dardennes never disclose any deep motivation for her actions, but her emotions are so vivid that one never thinks to question her). The growing love between the woman and the boy helps them surmount a variety of problems, including Cyril's own violent behavior, the impatience of Samantha's boyfriend with the whole situation, and Cyril's infatuation with a teenage delinquent known only as "the dealer."
Filmmaker Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself) has noted the similarities between the Dardennes' work and classic film noir, which often dealt with characters trying to avoid or escape lives of crime. The Son portrayed an ex-con's difficult rehabilitation, and L'Enfant dealt with petty thieves. The Kid With a Bike ups the ante by making the corruptible hero a mere boy. An abandoned child who has problems socializing, Cyril is a classic example of an at-risk youth; when the dealer recruits him to commit a robbery, one senses the beginning of a hopeless pattern that might one day ruin him. Like a good noir, the movie is suspenseful even in its quieter moments: Samantha and Cyril's crosstown search for the boy's father (which echoes detective movies like The Big Sleep) feels breathlessly urgent because the Dardennes keep cutting from one decisive movement to another.
The Kid With a Bike communicates its themes so directly that most children could appreciate it. In fact, the movie is remarkable for the way it suggests a fairy tale without sacrificing realism. In a recent Film Comment interview, the Dardennes discussed how "fairy-tale logic" guided certain decisions they made, such as dressing Cyril exclusively in red or setting his rendezvous with the dealer and his gang in the woods. This logic extends to most of the characters too: though they all face difficult choices, they're clearly divided into good and bad people. The bad ones think only of themselves, while the good ones learn to see beyond their immediate gain and think about others' well-being (this moral is common to children's stories, though it's more sophisticated than the thinking of many R-rated movies).
These various genre elements may not be readily apparent because the brothers have so subtly integrated them into the narrative, making the story feel larger than life. At times they even border on the spiritual: near the end of the film there's a figurative death and resurrection as Cyril falls from a tree to the pavement, appears to be dead, and then comes back around. Without sentimentalizing the characters, the Dardennes show how these people's lives are as emotionally charged—and worthy of the viewer's attention—as any Hollywood entertainment. In doing so, they persuade us that no life should be discounted.