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Hard-hitting tale of love and abandon

The Kid with a Bike

(12A, limited release, 87 minutes) Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne Stars: Cécile de France, Thomas Doret, Jeremie Renier, Olivier Gourmet

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The Dardenne brothers make fluent, vivid, naturalistic films about the lives of ordinary and often marginalised Belgians. They don't exactly sugarcoat the pill, however, and one rarely emerges from one of their films uplifted.

In Rosetta, a vulnerable young girl is exploited after trying to escape from life in a caravan park with her alcoholic mother; in Le Fils, a father hires his son's murderer in order to toy with him; and in L'Enfant, a father sells his newborn child to a black market adoption ring for cash.

By comparison, The Kid with a Bike seems almost optimistic. In the film's opening scenes, an earnest looking 11-year-old boy escapes from a foster home and goes in search of his father. Cyril Catoul (Thomas Doret) believes that his father will return for him, but the omens aren't good.

When Cyril arrives at his father's apartment, he finds he has vanished without a trace. Worse still, his precious bike has vanished, and Cyril refuses to believe his father sold it. After he bumps into a woman called Samantha (Cécile de France), she forms a mysterious bond with him. She finds his bike, agrees to take him at weekends, and then helps him finally locate his father.

Guy Catoul (Jeremie Renier) has found a new woman and is working in a restaurant. He's not pleased to see Cyril and tells Samantha he wants nothing more to do with him. This news devastates Cyril and, although Samantha subsequently adopts him, his need for male approval leads him into the orbit of an odious local drug dealer.

Filming, as ever, around the mean streets of the industrial town of Seraing, where they grew up, the Dardennes tell Cyril's story boldly and vividly without a trace of sentiment.

The film is largely soundtrack-free, which makes occasional, brief blasts of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto all the more arresting, the lush music a life-raft of artifice to which we can briefly cling before being thrust back into the thick of it.

Catholic motifs are never far from the surface in the Dardennes' films, and it would be easy to see Samantha as a saintly, unearthly, almost Madonna-like figure whose goodness seems to spring from nowhere. But sometimes pure goodness does appear in unlikely places, and Cécile de France's fine performance is free of sentiment and any suggestion of gushing niceness.

Samantha doesn't go to mass or preach about love or say much about anything actually. She is possessed of unearthly patience but doesn't seem especially proud of it. We don't know why she helps Cyril, we just know that she does.

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