Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's social-realist thrillers Rosetta and The Son are gripping in an arty, European way, with lots of tense situations that play out in handheld close-ups. With L'Enfant, though, a typically harrowing Dardenne brothers slice-of-life film evolves into something like an action movie, complete with a car chase. By the time L'Enfant reaches its climax—as petty crook Jérémie Renier zips through French streets on a scooter, trying to elude both the police and the people he's just ripped off—everything at stake for the hero and his pre-teen cronies is chillingly clear. It's a chase scene that pulses with metaphysical importance.
Until that point, L'Enfant—like the Dardennes' other films—demands patience. Most of the first hour is about the slow accumulation of details, as the Dardennes show the moment-to-moment existence of Renier, his girlfriend Déborah François, and their newborn baby. Flush with the spoils of a recent robbery, Renier treats his makeshift family to a spree. When the money runs out, Renier brokers a business deal that is, at minimum, unconscionable. To his credit, Renier realizes his mistake, but not before he's alienated François and permanently disrupted their life of impulse buys and playful wrestling matches.
L'Enfant is intended as a pointed critique of pop culture's celebration of arrested adolescence. The title could refer to Renier's baby, Renier himself, or even the gang of schoolboy robbers that he's gathered around himself. But it would be a mistake to get too hung up on whether the Dardennes are commenting on a specific social ill or speaking in metaphors to get underneath a more generalized spiritual crisis. It doesn't matter if what happens in L'Enfant is 100 percent "believable." Some of the details are definitely grounded in everyday life, like the emphasis on what everything in the movie costs, and exactly how much money Renier has (or doesn't have) to pay for it all. But toward the end, L'Enfant becomes like one of those nightmares where someone does something terrible, then tries to make it right, then gets into a bigger and bigger mess. It's a white-knuckle trip inside the anxiety that's become a common part of growing up a consumer.