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If Ingmar Bergman Were Funny

Cécile de France and Thomas Doret in The Kid With a Bike.  

The Dardenne brothers of Belgium, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have moved away from the somewhat formless quality of their early work into the realm of melodrama, which would be worrisome if their new films weren’t as good or better—heightened and purified by stronger narratives. The Kid With a Bike centers on 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret), whose father has deposited him in a state-run school and decamped, leaving no address. In the face of all evidence, Cyril won’t accept this rejection. He runs away to their now-empty flat and pounds on the door. When school counselors come, he clings to the legs of a random young woman and screams for his papa and his bike.

The woman is a hairdresser named Samantha (Cécile de France) who tracks down the bike (it was sold), locates the father (“Seeing him stresses me out. I’m starting over”), and arranges to take the boy in. Why? Hollywood would demand a backstory, but to the Dardennes, what does it matter? She defines herself by her moral choices. The boy, though, is wild, un-broken-in, apt to lash out, like a damaged pup from a shelter that you fear might have to go back. His frightening openness is evident when he falls in with a local delinquent, who teaches him to clobber people and take their cash. There are hints of Pinocchio and the tragic A.I. Can Cyril become a real boy?

The Dardennes have an exquisite sense of when to let their shots run on: A scene in which Cyril pedals furiously away from a crime evokes his state of mind and gives you time to brood on where he has been and might be going. Despite the simplicity of the brothers’ technique, The Kid With a Bike has deep religious underpinnings, a relentless drive toward the mythos of death and resurrection. The film is not just in the tradition of Pinocchio and A.I.: It is a worthy successor.

Centered on youthful cops working undercover in high schools, the eighties Fox TV series 21 Jump Street had a gritty vibe (Fox was new and looking to distinguish itself from the big three networks) and scripts that were painfully earnest, with Johnny Depp groping his way toward a standard Method juvenile career before cultivating late-Brando-style weirdness.

The movie, starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, spoofs the series and plays the premise for laughs. It has a bad, slapstick first act but by midpoint becomes strangely compelling, tapping into the fantasy of reliving one’s high-school years (which did a number on us all) and getting it right. After adjusting to the Zeitgeist zigs and zags of the seven years since they graduated, fat Jonah earns a place with the popular kids and develops self-esteem, while dumb hunk Channing settles in with the science nerds and learns to tap phones. It’s an agreeable shambles. The best scenes feature an anti-bullying environmentalist drug dealer played by Dave Franco, who’s like a cross between his weirdo brother James and fifties Method neurotics like Montgomery Clift. I can’t wait for his next movie.

Friends With Kids
Directed by Jennifer Westfeldt.

The Kid With a Bike
Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

21 Jump Street
Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller.