After 2008's tricky The Silence of Lorna, with its heroine who was possibly too spiky for the film's own good, the Dardennes return with a work of ostensibly simpler ways and means. The Kid with a Bike is almost fable-like in its realism, but it reminds you that Lorna, too, ended up in the woods, and you wonder if this is a direction - latter-day Grimm tales - the filmmaking brothers are now actively pursuing. Escaping from the children's home he's been raised in, tough little tyke Cyril (Thomas Doret) sets out to track down his father, only to be traced in turn by his carers and chased into a doctor's waiting room. Trapped therein, Cyril throws himself around the neck of one of the patients waiting there, the hairdresser Samantha (Cécile de France), in what appears a desperate clinging to normality; she's touched enough by the gesture to become the boy's weekend guardian, and to return his much-cherished bicycle, but the bike - a present from Cyril's dad, back when papa still had feelings for him - keeps getting stolen: clinging to that, and everything attached to it, proves considerably harder work.
The Dardennes clearly know Bicycle Thieves, where the loss of a velocipede equated to an absence of social mobility, but that neo-realist landmark is here filtered through a more contemporary sensibility: if the Dardennes are the closest the Continent has to Ken Loach, then The Kid with a Bike could be said to be their Kes. Tearing around the kids' home car park after the bike's return, Cyril evidently regards these two wheels as as much a playmate, as much an ally, as the kestrel was for Billy Casper in Loach's film; it's also a rare element over which this disadvantaged soul can exert some kind of control. Yet these alley-oops and bunny-hops are the kind of simple, uncomplicated pleasures that cannot last long in a complicated world: the bike, which has its own character arc, starts out as a toy, becomes a getaway vehicle, and is only belatedly observed being pedalled towards redemption. Like Cyril, it too falls in with the wrong crowd, and we fear for its future health, that it may end up on the scrapheap.
Relations between humans are no less fraught in this universe. Cyril will track his father (Jérémie Renier) down to a restaurant, where he first makes the boy empty promises and then bluntly announces he cannot see him anymore. Samantha, for all her kindliness, is another authority figure whose thumb Cyril comes to see as something to be got out from under. It's hardly surprising the boy should fall under the influence of a local drug dealer, who trains him in the ways of petty larceny - a development that suggests that the filmmakers have also been brushing up on their Oliver Twist. Throughout The Kid with a Bike, one senses the Dardennes are keen to explain their protagonist's mindset and actions through other, well-known texts, perhaps to avoid the criticism the slightly opaque Lorna attracted.
This sets the film apart from these directors' best works - 1999's Rosetta, 2005's The Child - which simply got on with observing their characters, and didn't feel the need to interpolate such footnotes, or indeed the sudden swells of Beethoven used here, to let us know how to respond. The new film functions, all the same, as a kind of Dardennes digest: an entry-level work, laid out in the reds and blues of a nursery-school primer, that you can well imagine playing to both arthouse stalwarts and teenage ethics classes alike. The compassion and formal economy we've come to expect from the directors is never in question, and still impressive, up to a point - and in Doret, they showcase a young performer who's very nearly the equal, in his defiance and resilience, of his British namesake Thomas Turgoose. For all the film's many referents and nods backwards, this is Belgium 2012.
The Kid with a Bike opens in selected cinemas from Friday.