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When we see a frantic streak of red and white charge down a city street, we know what it means: Emergency!

In the new film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Kid with a Bike, that frantic streak of red and white is the emergency. His name is Cyril. He’s 11 years old. He wears a red jacket with a white stripe down the sleeve. And as the movie opens, we learn he’s been abandoned.

Traumatized, Cyril fights to get back what he’s lost: his father and his bicycle. Following him, we’re drawn into a film as fast-paced and visceral as anything the Dardennes have yet made. (You don’t know the Dardenne brothers? Put La Promesse, Rosetta, or my favorite—The Son—in your queue.)

Careening from one end of the screen to another, Cyril reaches out for love the way a drowning child struggles for air. But his father’s the sort who would push that drowning child back under rather than bear the responsibility of saving him. So Cyril grabs hold of a life preserver. She’s a hairdresser named Samantha, and she’s one in a million—an exemplar of amazing grace.

But then, a more appealing offer comes from a drug dealer who is eager to exploit Cyril’s needs and train a new recruit.

The Kid with a Bike gives obvious homage to a variety of films, including Bicycle Thieves and The 400 Blows. But one particular inspiration shines throughout the film—Albert LaMorisse’s 1956 children’s classic The Red Balloon (a film I happened to see just before I saw this one).

Sure, the kid’s red jacket commands our attention as it zips back and forth across the screen. But the action and composition in several scenes—as Cyril runs from ruffians and fights to get his prized possession back—insist on the connection. The Red Balloon is about the fragility of childhood and the cruel world that threatens innocence. In The Kid with a Bike, there’s a prolonged shot of Cyril riding so fast that his jacket fills up with wind—he becomes the balloon.

Few child actors have ever been as ferociously persuasive as the actor in that jacket. Thomas Dorset’s scrappy, frenetic physicality makes us believe that Cyril would chase down, tackle, and pummel a larger, stronger kid—right in front of that kid’s gang.

“Humility” isn’t a word I often use to describe an actor, but Cécile de France earns it. She commits fully to Samantha’s quiet determination, making every move for Cyril instead of the camera, and so she becomes the film’s center of gravity. She makes it seem that Samantha, pursuing the boy without explanation, might be as confused about the forces compelling her as we are.

Jérémie Renier, as Cyril’s father, is perfectly pathetic without overacting. He may as well be an older version of the baby-selling crook he played in L’Enfant.

Similarly, the Dardennes draw no attention to their craft. But don’t be fooled by their unimposing style—their images, sound design, and long takes are masterfully composed. They abstain from the standard slow zooms, and from cues and enhancements that announce “Danger!” or “Despair!” Their characters don’t broadcast thoughts for our convenience. (It could have been a silent film.) We’re given space to wonder and to experience our own emotional responses without extraneous provocation.

We’re plunged into Cyril’s alienated state from the beginning, through the brilliant juxtaposition of cheerful playground sounds and an image of Cyril indoors, clinging to an electronic lifeline. He’s either striving to escape the screen or struggling to surmount the barriers between and the love he rightfully demands.

My favorite shot: Long after Cyril remarks on Samantha’s “warm breath,” we see him lean his head against her shoulder inside her car. She looks down at him. Between her slightly parted lips and his head we see the arrow-shaped logo on the car’s steering wheel, a visual reminder of that “breath of life” that now blesses him.

More than one critic has called The Kid with a Bike “minor Dardennes.” Apparently Samantha seems too good, too forgiving. One calls her “the mom nobody in this world ever had,” and says her actions do not seem very “grounded in the realities of human interaction.”

I’ve heard similar charges against two of my favorite films—Punch-drunk Love and Of Gods and Men. In the first, a troubled man meets a woman who decides to love him almost immediately, her motivations permanently mysterious. In the second, Christian monks risk their lives to serve their Muslim neighbors. Both provoked exclamations of disbelief and claims that these shows of grace were preposterous.

I don’t share their bewilderment. Have you never been blessed by a gesture of undeserved love? Have you never witnessed grace that confounds you, or felt compelled to reach out and help someone without knowing why?

On the other hand, some explain away Samantha’s efforts as mere “human kindness” or, in one case, “basic goodness.” But there’s nothing basic about Samantha’s behavior. Her love is profoundly, gloriously irrational, suggesting the influence of something beyond herself. It’s almost as if the strains of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 represent some spirit moving within her, within us, as we witness this helpless boy’s vanishing hopes.

The film presents two possible roads to this vulnerable cyclist, and to us. Cyril is invited to choose freedoms found within the responsibilities of a meaningful relationship. Or he can indulge the lesser, short-lived “freedoms” of rebellion, self-reliance, and so-called “independence.” That latter path beckons to us whenever we consider our friendships, vocations, marriage, and God.

At the same time, this film asks if we might ever be open to guidance by a spirit that confounds critics and transcends reason. It’s a spirit that leads us to brave the flames, to touch open wounds, to pursue those living emergencies who cannot save themselves.

Watching The Kid with a Bike, I see myself in Cyril’s rebelliousness. When I grow up, I want to be like Samantha.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet has been recognized for his writing on cinema in The New Yorker, Time, The Seattle Times, and Image, and spent an award-winning decade as film reviewer for Christianity Today. Overstreet writes fiction, memoir, reviews, and arts journalism. He is an international public speaker and teacher of creative writing, film studies, and cultural engagement for people of faith, including a term as Writer-in-Residence at Covenant College in Georgia. Random House’s WaterBrook Press has published four of his novels including Auralia’s Colors. Through a Screen Darkly, his “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” is available from Baker Books. He lives in Seattle with his wife, the poet Anne M. Doe Overstreet, and serves as contributing editor to Response magazine at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), where he works as a Communications Specialist. He is currently writing two novels, a book about film, and is enrolled in SPU’s MFA in Creative Writing program. He blogs at Looking Closer.

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