Cyril, the title character of the Dardenne Brothers’ latest, begins the film in denial, refusing to believe that his father sold off his bike to pay his debts and abandoned him in the group home where he now lives; he sprints off to see for himself at the old apartment, and, whenever he’s cornered, stands still until he sees an opening to spring off again, never calculating the chances of getting through this door or that window ahead of his pursuers. Thomas Doret, the 13-year-old first-time actor who plays Cyril, movies with a blank-faced inexorability recalls Donnie Yen, or other abrupt and ludicrously unself-conscious action dynamos—he’s relentless, and a scrapper, who’ll bite anyone who tries to hold him in place (a feral character motif that underscores his precariously ill-socialized status). When tracked down in a doctor’s waiting room, Cyril grabs hold to the nearest person and refuses his guardians’ exhortations to let go and come home; the person he clings to is the local hairdresser Samantha (Cécile De France), who indeed becomes something like an anchor to him over the course of the film.
Out of a sense of responsibility that, thanks to De France’s underplaying, never seems anything more than a baseline of decency, Samantha buys his bike back from the neighbor who bought it (Cyril, having asked after his father at all the local businesses, finally sees the hand-lettered sign advertising his bike for sale, and allows that Samantha wasn’t ripped off by a thief). Soon he’s spending weekends with her, on outings and at cycling around the neighborhood while she cuts hair; she gives Cyril a mobile so she can keep track of him—Doret’s lowered-head momentum makes him seem comically businesslike when he talks into it—and sets up an illusion-shattering meeting with his deadbeat dad, Guy (Jérémie Renier, in another one of the wildly unsympathetic post-puberty roles the Dardennes have written for their La Promesse discovery; he keeps his eyes down as Samantha forces him to admit to the totality of his barely even guilt-stricken absenteeism). (Guilt, indeed, and its uses—the way it may motivate a sense of responsibility—and limitations—the way it may short-circuit more empathic processes—is one of the Dardennes' great subjects.)
Before the meeting, Samantha follows Cyril into the alley behind the restaurant where his father works, and gets up on tiptoes alongside him to bang on the windows—she’s often indulgent in this way, partly because too sympathetic, partly because overwhelmed, and partly out of the foresight to soften the impact when Cyril hits his destination. But this inexperienced caregiver’s bend-don’t-break approach is tested when Cyril finds another male role model: well-known neighborhood tough Wes—he takes his nickname from the Resident Evil games—is an older boy in jeans, a sleeveless black t-shirt, a gold chain, a pack of smokes, and a mini-fridge and Playstation in his room. (He lives with his sickly grandparents.) In one rather devastatingly accurate scene, Cyril chases after a bike thief, who allows him to keep up, before fighting in front of Wes and others in their forest hangout—it’s obvious that the whole thing was set up by Wes, so he could laugh at Cyril (“Pitbull”) biting his gang’s bitch, and test his mettle for cultivation and future malfeasance. Cyril’s descent into delinquency is precipitous—as precipitous as Samantha’s almost psychic understanding, conscious of the damage rejection has already done, and her outlook validated with the final scene, which shows Cyril in his first moment of moral self-awareness.
The villainy of Wes and Guy stands out even amid other pure displays of insensitivity, and decency—the seemingly unmotivated Samantha, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne happily explained in their press conference, is a “good witch.” The music cues—there are four, a record for the Dardennes—are abrupt, short, and soaring: they’re meant to be deliberately “above” the film, shot as ever in blue-collar Wallonia. The Dardennes have always mixed moral allegory with sociological exactitude—their films are fables that happen to feature characters who wear cheap clothes, shot with a handheld camera. Here, the balance tilts towards the Dickensian—it’s not exactly muckraking (the Belgian welfare state is shown to function pretty well, actually), but it’s a story of an abandoned child, with the adult world embodied in benevolent and hiss-able characters with perhaps something of a child’s-eye-view looming flatness to them.