|No sign of dad in The Kid With a Bike.|
* * 1/2 The Kid With a Bike. Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne.
Fathers. Who needs 'em?
A recent long-term study of children raised by lesbian couples reported some surprising results. After following eighty-four families from birth to age seventeen, researchers Nannette Gartrell and Henry Bos showed their subjects not only matched their straight-raised peers by most measures, but were actually superior in academic performance. Children of lesbian parents also more self-confident, showed more social competence, and had fewer disciplinary problems.
Studies like Gartrell-Bos need to be taken with a grain of salt, because only the most motivated, conscientious parents-to-be (including ones with something to prove) tend to sign up for studies that take decades to complete. But this hasn’t stopped some advocates for same-sex marriage from touting them uncritically. The other implication of their argument—that having a male parent around is not only unnecessary, but actually harms academic performance, self-confidence, and discipline, is never talked about. Yet if you buy the study, the logic is inescapable: to raise well-adjusted kids, it’s better to have that second female around than a male.
Though outwardly beyond dispute, our collective esteem for fathers has never been lower. The word “patriarchy”—literally, “rule of the father”—is now a dirty one, while the female equivalent has a hip, sandalwood-scented wholesomeness to it. For quite a few people, a free-association exercise starting with the word “dad” only elicits the response “deadbeat”. And if you can name a current prime-time TV sitcom or commercial where, for a change, the father is handsome and wise and the mother the fatuous, overgrown kid, please write to us here, care of The Tompkins Weekly.
None of which has much directly to do with the Dardenne Brothers The Kid With a Bike, except that it compelled my attention so intermittently that thoughts on the state of modern fatherhood were never far away. The film concerns Cyril (Thomas Doret), a ten year-old boy who yearns for his père Guy (Jérémie Renier), even though the latter abandoned him to a state-run institution in the bleak exurbs of Liège, Belgium. His increasingly desperate attempts to contact the disinterested Guy doesn’t get him back. Instead, the boy somehow attracts the sympathy of Samantha (Cécile De France), a single hairdresser in the neighborhood. For Cyril, being fostered by Samantha beats life at the orphanage, but is no substitute for his dad. That role gets taken up by Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a local tough who only pretends to befriend Cyril as he uses him to stage petty thefts in the neighborhood.
The Kid With a Bike is a small-scale story with big themes on its mind. With such films as La Promesse (1996) and The Son (2002), the Dardennes have developed a reputation for gritty, unadorned stories from Europe’s underbelly. Kid is perhaps their most accessible offering yet. Though the film never explicitly cites them, it is set against a tradition of big-city father-figure-and-son stories like Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) and Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948), and at its best has something of the emotional punch of those classics.
For all that’s good about it, though—the directness, the aired-out simplicity, the quiet power of the performances of Doret and De France—there just not enough of it. Samantha clings to Cyril with the tenacity of a barnacle, even sacrificing her relationship with her long-term boyfriend (Laurent Caron) for him. But the Dardennes, in their trop cool refusal to psychoanalyze their characters, never account for why. With respect to this key element, the Dardennes are not practicing minimalism as much as deprivation. Explaining Samantha’s motive would not necessarily have entailed dull verbal exposition; it simply would have entailed some creativity.
The ending, though well done, likewise leaves a feeling of a job left incomplete. To repeat, there are some strong moments here. But there are also surprisingly ham-handed ones, as when the Dardennes fire up the Deutsche Grammophone to pound out emotional cues from Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto (Can you feel that? Can you feel it?). Overall, the rapturous critical reception to this movie seems to have more to do with its intentions than what it delivers.
Whatever Samantha’s motive, Cyril is obviously better off with her than the feckless chump who acted essentially as his sperm donor. He wants his father, but does he need him? One thing’s for sure: guys like Guy love to excuse themselves by insisting their kids are “better off without them”. Results of studies like Gartrell-Bos, though inspiring to same-sex couples, unintentionally play into such excuses among the much, much larger number of at-risk straight families. The lessons of sociology, like parenthood itself, are rarely unmixed blessings.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro