Eleven-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) has two very clear goals for the near future: track down the father (Jérémie Renier) who abandoned him in a children’s home and find his lost bicycle. Like an abused dog, Cyril trusts no one, bites everyone, and bolts the moment you look away. After one escape attempt from the home, he runs into a medical clinic on the ground floor of his former apartment building and clings to a local hairdresser, Samantha (Cécile de France), as counselors from the home try to pry him off of her. Samantha soon shows up at the home with the boy’s bike in her trunk, having bought it from the guy Cyril’s dad sold it to. The next thing you know—and boy, does it happen quickly—she’s agreed to watch the fiery pitbull on weekends.
The Dardenne brothers’ so-called fairy tale tells a rather simple, familiar, and predictable story, but it’s enriched by their characterization of Cyril and his relationship with Samantha. This archetypically innocent boy deals with complex emotions associated with the harshness of his father’s actions and his own inability to accept the reality that he’s been heartlessly abandoned, and the Dardennes see the bike Cyril so furiously clings to as symbolic of his vulnerable innocence. When we first meet the boy, the bike has already been sold off by his father, but Cyril, ever of the I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it mindset, can’t accept that his father might do such a thing to him. By bringing back his bike, Samantha essentially offers Cyril a second chance at the relatively carefree childhood his father couldn’t give him. When Cyril is reunited with the bike, he seems to momentarily forget the father who ditched him, joyfully riding in circles around a parking lot and showing off a few tricks and wheelies to his newfound hero. He’s a child once again. But having lost that bike once makes him much more protective of it, defending it from would-be thieves with ferocious violence, and it’s only through his relationship with Samantha that his viciousness begins to melt away, until he’s finally able to ride his bike in peace.
Cyril’s story is a tragically real one with symbolic overtones, and it’s one that’s brought to painfully wrenching life as much by the Dardennes’ ardent fixation on the character as it is by Doret’s fiercely determined performance. But Samantha isn’t as richly characterized as Cyril; the filmmakers don’t give her a past, plopping into the boy’s life almost at random. At best, she’s given a generic boyfriend who we know won’t last (when, in situations like these, has the boyfriend ever been liked or respected by the kid?), and his mere presence foretells the future ultimatum he gives Samantha: to choose Cyril or him. By introducing this blatant storytelling mechanism into her story, the Dardennes only call attention to Samantha’s lack of characterization.
Even the local drug dealer, Wes (Egon Di Mateo), is fleshed out more than the hairdresser. Though we pretty much have him pegged from the moment he strategically decides to befriend Cyril, the Dardennes work in details about Wes that prevent him from existing merely as a caricature. In just a few scenes, the directors effortlessly reveal his reputation around the neighborhood, his penchant for conning local boys into committing crimes for him, his own history at the same children’s home as Cyril, and his relationship with his grandmother, who’s fallen from her bed when Wes invites Cyril into his house to play video games. As Cyril holds his cigarette, the young dealer calmly helps his grandmother back up to her bed and switches the TV to her favorite channel before heading back to his room to continue the process of winning Cyril over.
The Dardennes’ decision not to develop Samantha beyond a blank slate is, I’m afraid, a misstep that occasionally becomes distracting, and prevents the film from achieving greatness as a truly rich, sweet, and engagingly tale of social realism. De France’s performance articulates Samantha’s patience and resolve and uncertainty in her ability to endure Cyril’s furious outbursts so well that it makes it an even greater shame to leave the rest of the character unexplored.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.