There’s a darkness to “Young Ahmed” that audiences have never seen before in the work of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the gifted Belgian brothers whose profoundly humane, unapologetically realist dramas have twice earned them the Palme d’Or in Cannes. Like surrogate parents to troubled children, the sibling directors have taken on their share of difficult adolescents. In “Rosetta,” “The Son,” and “The Kid With a Bike” in particular, the characters’ circumstances may be harsh, but audiences can sense an underlying optimism behind those stories, whereas with Ahmed, a radicalized Muslim teenager who tries to kill his teacher, there’s a difference: He could be too far gone to save.
In a sense, that brings fresh urgency to the latest from a pair of master filmmakers whose style has become so familiar that audiences can almost predict how their intense slice-of-life scenarios might play out. But introduce a 13-year-old itching for jihad, and the stakes suddenly turn dangerous, potentially life and death. After all, few things are scarier than a self-righteous young person, empowered by his own naive convictions and undeterred by empathy or life experience.
On one hand, that same combination drove millions into the clutches of the Hitler Youth during the previous century, although Ahmed’s situation is different in that he’s not being swept up by social pressure but taking a defiant stand against it. What the Dardenne brothers are showing here amounts to just the thing those shaken by terrorism fear most: the idea that regular people — but also those who look nothing like the dominant majority — can be brainwashed and body-snatched into agents of jihad. However serious-minded the typically safe duo intend to be, the dramatic allowances they take in imagining what that looks like could result in the Dardennes’ most controversial film yet.
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As “Young Ahmed” opens, it’s clear that this biracial, big-city teen (Idir Ben Addi) has developed a dangerous connection with a militant imam (Othmane Moumen), who plants poisonous ideas in the boy’s head. At school, Ahmed refuses to shake the hand of his teacher Inès (Myriem Akheddiou) because she’s a woman, while at home, he tells off his white mom (Claire Bodson), in Arabic, for drinking alcohol. Clues suggests these changes in Ahmed’s attitude are recent, as a boy who seems to have been a relatively normal teen just weeks before has become obsessed with prayer and the “purity” of those around him.
Instantly recognizable as a Dardenne film, “Young Ahmed” has that same deceptively “rough” quality as the directors’ earlier work, a carryover from their documentary background. And yet, they are astonishingly efficient storytellers, weaving the necessary clues audiences need to evaluate — and at times entirely reconsider — their characters with the expertise of veteran detective novelists.
Compared with past Dardenne protagonists, Ahmed can be more difficult to read at first glance. The imam has already gotten to him, instructing him to lie about what they discuss at the mosque. Half of the time Ahmed appears on-screen, he’s surrounded by others and obliged to adapt his behavior so as not to be detected. In private scenes, however, the Dardennes observe a different boy, one who keeps the photo of a jihadist cousin stashed in his binder, tucking it under his prayer mat during salah. He’s especially chilling when contemplating violence, rehearsing how to run with a knife in his shoe or filing a stolen toothbrush into a makeshift weapon.
If some of these behaviors verge on alarmist racial stereotype, that’s offset to a degree by the film’s casting. First-time actor Ben Addi, who plays Ahmed, has a soft face and gentle features. He looks like the last person who might be picked for dodgeball, not someone who would walk into school with a weapon — a scenario Americans know all too well, sadly, in which previously undetectable perpetrators don’t even need a catalyst such as religious extremism to set them off.
By contrast with a film like “The Kid With a Bike,” in which a positive adult influence can make all the difference in a young person’s life, “Young Ahmed” shows an adolescent caught in a kind of tug-of-war between rival role models. On one side, there’s the Muslim teacher Inès, who taught Ahmed to read and wants her other students to learn Arabic from other sources than the Quran; on the other is the imam, who spews harsh words like “apostate,” “blasphemy,” and “heretic” when referring to Inès. He opposes her methods, which Ahmed misinterprets as a death sentence of sorts, quoting the Quran’s infamous “And kill them wherever you find them” line and taking it upon himself to deliver justice.
After Ahmed ambushes Inès outside her apartment and botches his attack, the film cuts to a youth rehabilitation center, where he still seems riled up, more feral than ever. Such observational moments of personal agitation, not uncommon in Dardenne films, pinch at our chests, balanced out by equally plausible acts of goodness and understanding. Here, counselors work with Ahmed, trying to assimilate him back into Belgian society without insulting his Muslim beliefs, and even suggest that he go to work on a farm, where he develops a friendship that evolves into something more complicated with a white girl his age, Louise (Victoria Bluck).
But Ahmed’s convictions are stronger than anyone could have imagined, and private scenes reveal that he hasn’t abandoned his plan to hurt Inès, creating a kind of gut-wrenching suspense that carries through the second half of the picture, right up till its very last scene. In the final moments, something happens that will almost certainly turn the audience’s feelings toward Ahmed, although it feels as though the Dardennes didn’t know how to end the film, squeezing in a rushed resolution that doesn’t follow from what’s come before — unless you’re actually counting from the beginning of their career, in which case, the catharsis is not only consistent but arguably even earned.