A film about a Muslim teenager’s radicalisation directed by two white men was always going to be controversial, no matter that those men are the legendary Dardennes brothers.
The worry was that they would produce something sensationalised and insensitive, though that should never have been a risk for filmmakers with such a humane spirit. In reality, Young Ahmed is more of a de-radicalisation story, with Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) beginning the film near a tipping point and spending the rest of its runtime dealing with the consequences.
Under his imam’s influence, Ahmed preaches strict Islamic ideology to his more relaxed mother and sister, but the real flashpoint is with his teacher Inès (the excellent Myriem Akheddiou). Once a kind and polite boy, now he refuses to shake her hand and hurls anti-semitic slurs at her boyfriend. It’s hard to judge how seriously we should be taking his fundamentalist religious stance, coming, after all, from a 13-year-old boy who looks like he wouldn’t say boo to a goose. That question is answered soon after with a tense and shocking moment of violence.
This is the film’s biggest problem, with radicalisation treated as both a juvenile folly and a sinister brainwashing. Neither angle quite gives the topic the nuance it deserves, a problem made more explicit by Ahmed’s youth and innocence.
The Dardennes’ script portrays him as a blank slate, upon which a set of radical beliefs are carved. Addi is a very closed, inexpressive performer, which helps keep his final choices unknown to the end, but also makes it hard to empathise with his journey.
The film peaks with a tremendous third act, complicating Ahmed’s decision with romantic temptations and a few sweet, tragicomic moments, but you’re left wishing for a broader take on such a complex issue rather than this small, isolated story.
CAST: Idir Ben Addi, Myriem Akheddiou, Claire Bodson, Olivier Bonnaud, Victoria Bluck, Othmane Moumen
DIRECTORS: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
WRITERS: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
SYNOPSIS: A Belgian teenager hatches a plot to kill his teacher after embracing an extremist interpretation of the Quran.