If you resist arthouse movies because you might see a "10-minute uninterrupted take of wind" — as a wiseguy characterized the movies of Bela Tarr in a comment here the other day — I have the perfect rebuttal: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. The Belgian brothers' concerns are strictly human and social, their eye as rapt and exacting as any Central European miserabilist's. But there's a built-in accessibility to everything they do, for the simple reason that they're storytellers and they deeply care about people — not in some remote-observer way, but with the mobilized urgency of a neighbor who's heard the kids next door get beaten for the last time.
Like their other movies, The Kid with a Bike is about the difficulty, and maybe possibly the reward, of putting morals into practice. Filmmakers with a documentary background, the Dardennes shoot in a fleet, often hand-held style that gives their dramas speed and momentum, and I have yet to see one of their movies that isn't as compelling as a gun to your head — not The Son, in which a grieving father finds himself holding the fate of his child's killer; not the devastating Rosetta, in which a broke, hungry girl must figure out how far she's willing to go to protect her slave-wage job.
This one is a heartbreaker even by the Dardennes' lofty standards, a character study with the spare, considered precision and emotional force of an instant classic. A towheaded kid, Cyril (newcomer Thomas Doret), abandoned by his father to a state home, fixates on the bike that was his dad's one show of affection. When the local hairdresser (an exquisitely hardbitten Cecile de France) helps him get it back, he pleads with her to take him in. If this were a Lifetime movie, it would offer only a few perfunctory speedbumps on the expressway to icky uplift.
But the Dardennes factor in the weight of real temptation, real betrayal, real damage, and most upsettingly, real consequences. The boy will not receive charity like a good little angel: he will lash out at the person who extends the most hope, gravitating instead toward a petty hood with a PlayStation and a little moneymaking scheme in mind. The hairdresser will be repaid with blood, and giving up on the kid will come to seem not just practical but self-preservative.
I won't give away how the story turns out, or the sickening twist that materializes just when all seems resolved — a twist that is fully plausible from an ordinary human standpoint, and all the more gut-wrenching for it. But the last shot leaves the viewer, like its subject, shaken — as much by the unexpected intrusion of mercy as by the unforgiving fate that might have been.
Running just 87 essential minutes, The Kid with a Bike opens tonight at The Belcourt. Spread the word.