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Monday
Jun242013

EXPECTATION, REVERSALS, AND THE KID WITH A BIKE

I'm always aware of audience expectations - how to meet those expectations, and how to play against them - right up until the very last moment, of every scene, sequence and act.

Watching movies, I often wonder where the story is going to take me, and what the next reversal might be.

If a movie plays out as expected, that's predictable. If a movie gets to a place I was anticipating but in an unexpected way, that's enjoyable. When a movie leads me down one path, only to take me to an entirely different destination, I know I'm in the hands of a good storyteller.

Certain genres, like the thriller, appear more malleable to the reversal. But reversals are essential to all dramatic writing.

Take the 2011 movie, The Kid with a Bike. Written and directed by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, it is the slight but involving story of an 11-year-old, Cyril (Thomas Doret), who is abandoned by his father, and taken in by a kind hairdresser, Samantha (Cécile de France).

(Spoilers ahead. The movie is streaming at Netflix).

Cyril falls in with a young drug dealer, who moves Cyril to attack and rob a newsstand owner and his teenage son. After apologizing to the newsstand owner through mediation, Cyril escapes with a warning.

In the last few scenes, the Dardennes cleverly play against the natural expectation that the drug dealer will resurface to spoil Cyril's new life with Samantha. But, in fact, a relatively minor character plays a larger role in the film's denouement.

During a chance meeting at a gas station, Cyril runs into the newsstand owner and his son, Martin, who has been unable to forgive Cyril for his crimes. 

Martin chases Cyril down the street, runs him off his bike, and attacks him. After a scuffle, Cyril runs into woods adjacent to the street, and climbs up a tree. Martin pelts Cyril with rocks, one of which hits Cyril, sending him falling to the ground.

The woods is a recurring location. A place where Cyril has hung out with the drug dealer, and rehearsed his attack on the newsstand owner. That adds another layer of tension to the scene, planting the idea that the drug dealer might reappear, but as Cyril's savior.

The newsstand owner's reaction to Cyril's fall adds another twist.  The Dardennes present him as an upstanding member of the community. But when Martin reports that Cyril is not moving, he proposes they lie to the authorities.

As this scene played out, I believed Cyril might be dead.

When he regains consciousness and walks away, the moment is not only uplifting, it creates a terrific release of tension. Because The Kid with a Bike is a drama with several tragic moments, the ending is in no way predictable.

In this simple sequence, the Dardennes exploit our assumptions about the characters, location, and genre to keep us guessing until the very last moment.