Le Gamin au vélo
Sometimes you wonder whatever happened to real storytelling, and then you find a simple, effective story like Le Gamin au vélo. There are no stylistic flights of fancy, no cheap heartstring-tugs, and no overwrought scenery-chewing. It’s just the story of one troubled kid with a bike, and that’s all that it needs to be.
The kid is Cyril Catoul (Thomas Doret), and we first meet him living in an orphanage. It’s not clear what happened to his mother, but his father, Guy (Jérémie Renier), has had to place him here after his grandmother died and he was too much to care for alone. and then Guy up and disappears, which Cyril refuses to accept because Guy still has his bike and his father wouldn’t just sell it off.
So Cyril runs away from school to look for Guy at his old apartment. When the counselors show up to retrieve him, he latches onto a strange woman, Samantha (Cécile De France), until he can be pried away. But Samantha’s heart goes out to him, and she looks around for the bike he’d described so she can buy it back and return to Cyril. And then she decides to take him in, just on the weekends.
Watching the two of them bond goes slowly, but it’s honestly heartwarming. Unfortunately, Cyril’s disaffection leaves him vulnerable to predators like Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a local delinquent that Samantha is convinced deals drugs around the neighborhood. All of which sets Cyril up for a prodigal son story about the possibilities of forgiveness, as well as its limitations.
Thomas Doret is excellent, especially for such a young actor in such a central role. Cyril feels very natural, and Doret shows a great emotional range with him. Cécile De France, as well, feels natural as Samantha, though it’s difficult for me to tell why, exactly, she invites all this stress upon herself for a kid she’d never met before. But then this may be why I don’t have any myself. Still, she falls easily into the role, as if she were born tone his mother.
Credit must go to the writer/director team, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. In the first task, they’ve avoided narrative excesses, and in the second they’ve avoided cinematic ones. They present the story gently, trusting their cast to evoke and their audience to infer the emotional turns. There are no swelling strings telling us when to feel — just a few bars of a Beethoven adagio as act-separators are enough. And not only do they give us a fleshed-out character in Cyril, he has a real emotional arc to follow.
The secret is that the Dardenne brothers set out to structure the film like a fairy tale. Cast out by his false family, Cyril obtains the blessing of a benevolent fairy godmother. At the same time he must avoid being ensnared by the malevolent intentions of those like Wes. And at the end, he finds his true home, a little older and a little wiser, and we’re genuinely happy to see him there.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.