The Dardenne brothers have acquired something of a niche reputation for spare dramas using relatively unknown actors. In this often heart-rending saga of a dysfunctional childhood they acquire themselves a star in Cécile De France. With echoes of such seminal works as The 400 Blows and Bicycle Thieves the Dardennes could find this is one of their most accessible contenders.
The overwhelming desire to survive infiltrates every sinew of the slight 11-year-old boy (Thomas Doret) who finds himself alone and abandoned by his preoccupied father (Daredennes regular Jérèmie Renier).
The Belgian directorial double act—les frères Dardennes—uncovers an amazingly naturalistic performance from the young lead Thomas Doret while enlisting the presence of Cécile De France who's warmhearted character finds herself looking after him.
Fragments of the boy's background help to build the bigger picture. He is first seen trying desperately to contact his father and to retrieve his beloved bicycle. His habitual escapes from the children's home where he has been placed put him in contact with hairdresser Samantha (De France) who lives in his old neighborhood.
When his bike is stolen by some local youngsters she manages to get it back and delivers it to the home. Later she agrees to look after him on the weekends. During one weekend visit he meets his father, who rejects any possibility of reunion.
The desolate boy falls in with a gang whose leader seems certain to be a bad influence. The Dardennes emotional rollercoaster gives you genuine reasons to care about the boy's fate, so much so that the final denouement proves a wrenching experience.
The balance of the relationship between the boy and his new "mother" is delicately played out between De France and Doret—a battleground of conflicting emotions. Renier lends a troubled presence as the father who can no longer shoulder the responsibility of a son and spends all his time just trying to make ends meet.
It is the boy's tough exterior and lack of self-pity that binds the narrative together, making this one of the Dardennes' most appealing undertakings. Its screening at the Cannes Film Festival maintains their loyal link with the event which helped to forge their careers.
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Cast: Cécile De France, Thomas Doret, Jérémie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione, Egon di Mateo
Directors/Screenwriters: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Producers: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Denis Freyd
Genre: Drama; French-language, subtitled
Running time: 87 min.
Release date: Unset