The kid of the title of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s latest film is Cyril (Thomas Doret), a pre-teen boy for whom a bicycle is more than just a toy. His only possession, the bike constitutes his identity and gives his life meaning. It tells him who he is; he is the kid with the bike. Abandoned by a deadbeat father (“I just can’t be responsible for him right now”) and subject to impulsive tantrums, Cyril’s preferred method of defense in moments of crisis is to bolt, either on foot or on wheels. In flight from the orphanage to which he’s been consigned, he bursts into the waiting room of a doctor’s office and ends up cowering behind a female patient, Samantha (Cecile de France), who is remarkably unfazed: “you can hold on to me,” she tells Cyril calmly, “just not so tight.” This stranger will end up acting as Cyril’s foster parent, and will attempt to tame his erratic behavior for the remainder of the film.
In the last fifteen or so years, the Dardenne Brothers have become major figures in world cinema, winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes twice (for Rosetta  and L’Enfant ). As far as social realism goes, their stark, intimate portraits of desperate people are accomplished and finely wrought—though the passivity of characters like the titular heroine of Rosetta is maddening enough to inspire a kind of schadenfreude on the part of the more cynical viewer. The Dardennes’ films have grown on me over time, though, and the Dardennes themselves have grown and matured as filmmakers. The tough-but-wounded characters at the center of The Kid with the Bike are not saintly sufferers, and they’re not coddled or sentimentalized. In stark, clear-eyed long takes, the Dardennes’ camera watches impassively as Cyril wanders out of one desperate situation and into another, moving from victim to criminal and back again with shocking suddenness. The film is also stripped of heavy symbolism: as in De Sica’s classic Bicycle Thieves (1948), Cyril’s precious bike stands for more than itself, but its symbolic meaning isn’t belabored.
The Dardennes only occasionally intrude on the film’s strict neo-realist aesthetic, by bringing in Beethoven on the soundtrack: the same three or four bars of the Emperor concerto, repeated at four points throughout the film. In these brief moments, The Kid with the Bike trades in the starkness of De Sica for the more aching lyricism of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1958), the other of this film’s prime influences. As at the end of that film, we leave The Kid with the Bike uncertain about where our adolescent hero is headed, and a little worried.