Twitter is built to turn concepts into controversies, so when Cinéart dropped a trailer for Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s new movie, heading into 2019’s Canne Film Festival, users reacted with their customary restraint. Takes were hot. Pearls were clutched. Calls for the brothers’ cancellation were vociferous. The good news is that while Twitter manufactures outrage faster than fingers can mash smartphone screens, and in a few short weeks everyone forgot about the film’s premise. Now, as Young Ahmed gets a quiet theatrical run two months into the new year, everyone seems to also have forgotten about its existence.
For as much rancor as the Dardennes’ basic conceit initially triggered—“young Muslim boy is radicalized by a Jihad-happy imam and tries to knife his teacher in small-town Belgium”—Young Ahmed is a surprisingly docile effort. The Dardennes usually make pictures immersed in social consciousness and constructed with devotion to neorealism. They don’t so much “research” a subject as invest their empathy in it, which makes Young Ahmed’s surface-level examination of religious radicalization puzzling. These are not filmmakers who operate on a surface level alone.
But clocking in at a trim 80 minutes, their movie barely breaks the surface regarding the question of how boys like Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) might be indoctrinated into acceptance of hardline violent ideologies. Just as Ahmed never questions the word of his mentor, Imam Youssouf (Othmane Moumen), so too do the Dardennes neglect to question exactly how Ahmed fell into the man’s grasp. He’s simply there. Hints are dropped, and perhaps Young Ahmed is a story best served by hints: Exposition would surely drag the work in the opposite direction, and overcook the whole plot. Here, it’s put to the viewer that perhaps a lack of fatherly influence in Ahmed’s life led him straight to the Imam’s crooked arms. In the Hollywood version, Ahmed and his dad would have a big reunion scene in which both men share with one another their most tear-jerking regrets and feelings. (Depending on the big-name actor cast as the dad, it might even win an Oscar.)
Frankly, it feels like the Dardennes are punching above their weight class. The mechanics of radicalization are intricate. Teens like Ahmed don’t wake up, get bored, and decide to follow a path that might end in either their suicide bombing or the murder of their tutor, and Young Ahmed conveys no real sense of the how, or why. All it has is depiction of post-radicalization teenhood. (Granted, that depiction is couched in gripping drama and the Dardennes’ textured style, and anchored by Addi’s impressive lead performance.) It’s bad enough when a boy turns 13 and immediately becomes a mollusk. Now imagine that kid conspiring to kill somebody. Addi makes Ahmed singularly frustrating: He’s too adolescent to know what the hell he’s talking about or what he even wants out of life, but he speaks with conviction and self-assurance awash in condescension. All the same, the audience never loses sight that this is, in fact, a child, a child driven to awful deeds but a child nonetheless. Young Ahmed encompasses a very particular sort of evil, and lets us see the good it subsumes.
In the end, this is handsomely constructed work from filmmakers who, by now, should be able to avoid turning out badly crafted cinema. But Young Ahmed sees them adrift in the specifics of their material. Maybe there’s a reason the runtime is so brisk. Maybe anything longer would have fully exposed how out of their depth they are (despite speaking with experts in the area of deradicalization as part of their preparation). Twitter probably should have waited to see the film before demanding to speak with the manager; Young Ahmed isn’t the affront to taste people feared it would be. But the its lack of genuine depth feels like an offense unto itself.
Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Writers: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Starring: Idir Ben Addi, Myriem Akheddiou, Claire Bodson, Othmane Moumen, Victoria Bluck, Olivier Bonnaud
Release Date: February 21, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.