I, Nathan, look at The Kid with a Bike not only as a cinephile, but as foster parent for the past four months.
The Encarta Dictionary defines the word “foster” as a transitive verb meaning, 1. Mature Child – to provide a child with care and upbringing, 2. Develop Something – to encourage the development of something, 3. Keep Alive Feeling or Thought – to keep a feeling or thought alive. The dictionary goes further, “Giving or receiving a home and parental care and upbringing, usually on a short-term basis, although unrelated by blood or adoption. Foster care is provided for children whose natural parents are dead, absent, or unfit or unable to look after them.”
This is the technical definition, and there’s nothing wrong with any of these given meanings. They all cover some aspect of the foster experience; what they don’t get at, though, is the true essence. One can give a home, but that does not mean the home is received with grace. One can encourage the development of a child, but that doesn’t mean the child is interested in being developed; and the feeling that we are keeping alive – a sense of family and belonging – is nearly impossible to hold on to when the child knows that his or her biological parents are unable to give them the real thing. To foster a child is to care for.
What Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Kid with a Bike offers is the ideal progression of a foster child, from erratic behavior and denial of his circumstances to mature decision making and acceptance of a new home. Presented to us in an 87 minute framework, the film is a foster child’s fantasy, complete with big bad wolf and fairy godmother. The movie does not lie, but neither does it present the truth; rather, it collapses the truth, molding it to the needs of the dramatist. If we are pleased with the developmental arc of Cyril the Foster Child, then we should also be aware that it is not a realistic arc, no matter how insistent the Dardenne brothers social realism style. The Kid with a Bike has only the surface of realism. It stares headlong into some of the harshest moments of foster care and then eclipses them with narrative structure. Like the greatest of fables, by ignoring the real The Kid with a Bike shows us the truth.
The goal of the average foster child is to reclaim the family that was lost. Children are taken or expelled from their homes for any number of reasons – abuse, neglect, death, etc. – and the child will not rest until he or she reclaims the family structure that provided them with a sense of belonging and safety. What a child goes through is similar to experiencing the death of a loved one. The stages of grief are all present – denial, anger, bargaining, etc. – and just as it is with grief associated with death, the process must end in acceptance. The Kid with a Bike takes young Cyril through those stages, playing them out in a relatively fluid order that moves directly from point A to point B. In reality, the stages of grief do not move in a fixed order; sometimes they bounce around, sometimes they cycle over and over before finally reaching their goal.
Cyril is about 11 years old. We are never told where his mother is (definitely not taking care of Cyril), but we do know that his father has abandoned him, disappearing suddenly and leaving the child in a Belgian group home for children. True to the cycle of grief, at first Cyril does not believe that his father has truly left him. He attempts to call his father and then to visit his old apartment. When these things turn up with no result, Cyril is forced out of the denial stage, but still he is willing to justify his father’s behavior in his own mind for any number of imaginative reasons. Even after meeting his distracted and evasive dad face to face, Cyril still manages to believe that he will one day be reunited. It is the search for a real family, a family of one’s own.
But this is not about a boy and his father; rather it is about a boy and his bike, which represents all that he has left of his father, a poignant symbol of childhood and his one connecting tissue to the family he may never have again. The bike does not come to Cyril easily, though, for his father had sold it off and it’s through a kind stranger that he gets it back. And once he has it in his possession, for all the symbolic weight that the bike carries, Cyril protects it with all his furious might. And for unknown reasons, the stranger who bought the bike decides to bring him into her home on weekends.
Cyril serendipitously meets a woman named Samantha. After buying back the boy’s bike, Samantha befriends Cyril and is eventually agrees to keep him in her care on weekends, apparently without any foster care training, formal paperwork, or any other restrictions. He is just given to her. It is on this point – staying home on weekends and other issues of foster care – that things get complicated. I do not know the Belgian foster care system at all, and I do not know if its mechanisms are presented accurately in this movie; if they are, then it is a very strange system indeed. I do not want to make a big fuss about this point, but what the Dardennes depict in The Kid with a Bike is extremely different from the foster care system in the US, which has mountains of paperwork, hours of state-mandated training, and what seems like an encyclopedic amount of restrictions; all of which can be tailored to each individual child. The fact that none of this exists in the film should tell us one of two things: either the Belgian foster system is the most the most irresponsible foster systems known to man or the Dardennes have circumnavigated a lot of expositional detail to present us a condensed foster child fable. If these technical details had been thrown in, The Kid with a Bike would have been far more realistic and yet far less interesting.
The most striking aspect of Cyril’s placement is that he is allowed “unsupervised time”. In other words, Samantha is permitted to let Cyril run around freely. He can go where he wants and hang out with whomever he’d like. Samantha is free to run her salon, go on dates with her boyfriend, or whatever; the state is willing to give Cyril to her, but they are not requiring that she be responsible for him. The American foster system would rarely let an 11 year old child roam the ranges free. This situation becomes more acute when we think about Cyril’s behavior – erratic, taciturn, and sometimes violent; always driven by his immediate emotional needs. In the Dardanne’s world, it make sense to let Cyril run free – it accords them more opportunities for dramatic tension – but this is not the best way to support and protect a child who has just lost his family.
But again, we are not concerned with reality or what might work in an actual foster placement. This is a fictional placement, and the structures that have been set up by the Dardennes place Cyril on a beautiful arc.
By virtue of his “unsupervised” status, Cyril seeks out a surrogate father-figure in a local thug. He gets himself into serious trouble and he defies his foster mother in frightening ways. He plows through his stages of grief, and it is all but impossible for his new caretaker to control or protect him. Cyril, like just about every other foster child on the planet, is a confused being and his self-awareness level is so low that he doesn’t even realize how confused he is. But Cyril is not stupid, and the Dardenne’s don’t impair him with any mental illness or other such nonsense. When he strays, he knows it, and if he’s not always aware of the motivations behind every one of his actions, he does know that Samantha can be his salvation.
The most luminous moment in The Kid with a Bike has been understandably exploited in print advertisements. Cyril and Samantha are riding bikes together. Cyril’s bike has become a symbol throughout the film, constantly referring back to the child’s past life, a life that we never see. Through the Dardenne’s tracking camera, they seem to be flying at breakneck speed. They pull ahead and behind each other with lucid grace. With all the trouble that Cyril has been through and all the trouble he has caused, the moment is a glorious respite, offering a profound sense of belonging. But the most important moment of the film comes just moments after that shot. Tired, the two slow down and then decide to switch bikes. Cyril mounts the adult bike. It doesn’t fit him well, but he is able to ride. Likewise, Samantha rides the children’s bike, but gracelessly. The symbolism is obvious but somehow delicate and affecting. It is the ideal. The child takes on the responsibilities of adult maturity and the foster parent places herself in the position of the child. Sympathy, growth, fostering. This is what it should be like. The technical definition meets its ideal realization. In real life, it rarely works this way, though.
The Kid with a Bike is a tremendous dream; a film without sentimentality and yet able to inspire our best natures.