Showing love to child offenders


The Kid with a Bike (M). Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. Starring: Thomas Doret, Cécile De France, Jérémie Renier. 88 minutes

Once one of the boys, Marcus*, slapped my face. He did it with a grin that quickly toppled into a nervous chortle. I was startled. It wasn't painful, and I recognised it as an act of ill-judged jest. But I worried what wrath might be rained on him by the staff on my behalf.

A few minutes later, I was called into a room adjacent to the one where we'd been jawing with the other boys. One of the workers, Joe, sat with Marcus. They'd been talking about what just happened. 'Sorry I hit you,' said Marcus. No arm-twisting or threats from Joe*. Just a simple and sincere apology.

Ken had that effect on the boys. Aged ten to 14, they were detained for deeds ranging from drug and theft charges to violent crimes. As a weekly volunteer I'd seen the confronting behaviour they were sometimes capable of. Joe, with his burly heart of gold, saw their better nature and brought it out.

Toubled children will respond to kindness that is sincere, consistent, and uncorrupted by self-interest. That was what I saw with Joe. It's also a central theme of the new Belgian film The Kid with a Bike.

Eleven-year-old Cyril (Doret) lives in a boarding home. He's struggling to accept that his adored dad has moved on, without telling him or leaving a forwarding address. His refusal to think ill of his father crystallises around one main article of faith: he would not leave without first bringing him his bike.

Cyril flees the home in search of his dad and his bike, pursued by a worker who is well-meaning but obviously weary of Cyril's brooding and his erratic antics.

By chance, he latches on to a stranger, hairdresser Samantha (De France), as the worker tries to restrain him. Unaware of the circumstances but seeing simply a child who is distressed, her compassion is automatically directed to Cyril: 'You can hold onto me, just not so tight,' she tells him.

Samantha locates and returns Cyril's bike, then agrees to 'foster' him on weekends. She also finds Cyril's father, Guy (Renier), and accompanies the boy for a reunion. Guy, however, is passive and uninterested; his cool rejection is a black mirror to Samantha's instinctive warmth and kindness.

The shattering of Cyril's illusions, which he has lied to others and to himself to preserve, is devestating. The film considers a series of hard social and moral tests that Cyril, strong-willed but impressionable, must face in the wake of this rejection. It's a formative period, for better and worse.

This period tests Samantha's kindness, too, and strains their relationship. As The Kid with a Bike traverses the dark places of a child's psyche, it becomes increasingly clear that only the unshaded lamps of love and compassion can light the way back.

One of the boys I met at the remand centre had been charged with murder. The details of his alleged deed revealed a process of systematic humiliation and cruelty towards the victim. It was extremely difficult to reconcile this when looking into the face of a 14-year-old boy.

'What are you in for?' one of the boys asked. 'Stealing a car,' he replied, eyes on his shoes. 'Nah,' said the other knowingly. 'You killed that guy.' The eyes stayed on the shoes, but they were misty. He'd done a terrible thing. But he was still a boy. They all were.

Ken could see that. And so he loved them. It's the kind of light they need.

*Names have been changed.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Kid with a Bike, juvenile justice



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Existing comments

Thank you for this piece on an intriguing film and for your poignant comments and reminiscences. Seeing children locked up, or even just knowing that minors are incarcerated, is unsettling. While our society can and does weigh offences in the balance and treats young people accordingly (often without a lot of resources or options), the damage to their lives and the lives of their families, their victims and their victims' families is incalculable. Thank God for people who see beyond the actions and intentions to accept incarcerated young people unconditionally, in all of their youth, frailty, culpability and potential.
Barry G | 15 March 2012

Wow Tim, I just wonder if for many of us, we haven't been far away from lashing out and living to regret irreversible actions. I know that in my life, especially when a child, I lived with a fear knowing I was capable of extreme violence. And you're so right Tim, only unconditional love and compassion for those of us who are troubled can bring peace and hope.
Jo dallimore | 15 March 2012

Saw this film reviewed on The Movie Show last night. Not sure if I could cope with the realism of the rejection. Troubled youths often seem on a trajectory toward self destruction and they find their way into the forensic system quite quickly. Some get dealt a hard deck, as it were, but others just go off the rails. I wish there were ways to short circuit the futility of incarceration. But it seems to be the only way sometimes to save someone's life.
Jenny Esots | 15 March 2012


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