No one could ever confuse one of the stripped-bare dramas of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne for a James Bond movie. That’d be like wandering into a small country chapel and thinking it a megachurch. Yet for all their celebrated austerity— the absence of music, the stark simplicity of the plots—films like L’Enfant, The Son, and Lorna’s Silence ripple with a crackerjack tension not so far removed from that of a super-spy blockbuster. They’re basically urgent moral thrillers draped in the modest accoutrements of neorealism. And they actually begin, invariably, the same way just about every 007 entry does: in media res, with their protagonist already on the feverish move.
That’s true, for example, of the title character of the Belgian brothers’ latest crucible of desperation and ethical dilemma. A 13-year-old Muslim teenager living in a Belgian suburb, Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) is introduced mid-step, racing up a flight of stairs. Where the boy is really headed is cause for concern. He and his brother, Rachid (Amine Hamidou), are already well under the dangerous influence of an extremist, an imam (Othmane Moumen) secretly preparing for a jihad. Of the two boys, Ahmed has committed harder to the cause, abandoning all other interests and adhering to a strict regimen of prayer. The internet only feeds his conviction; especially motivational are videos of his late cousin, martyred for dying during what’s strongly implied to be an act of terrorism.
All of this has driven a wedge between Ahmed and his single mother (Claire Bodson), who doesn’t wear a hijab and laments his newfound fanaticism. But the boy reserves much of his resentment for his Arabic teacher, Madame Inès (Myriem Akheddiou), dismissed as an apostate by the imam. Enraged by her less severe reading of the Quran (including a belief that it promotes peace with other faiths), Ahmed hastily plots an attack, determined to convert his devotion into action. Much of Young Ahmed concerns the fallout of this clumsy attempt, as the boy lands in juvenile detention and under the supervision of a generous caseworker (Olivier Bonnaud), while also struggling with his connection to the decidedly un-devout Louise (Victoria Bluck), the teenage daughter of the farmers he works for every Wednesday as part of his sentence. Will Ahmed come to feel remorse for what he did? Or is he too far gone already?
Young Ahmed premiered at Cannes last year, and though the Dardennes are generally darlings of the festival (they’ve twice won its top prize, the Palme d’or, and in fact picked up Best Director for this one), reactions to the movie there were uncommonly divisive, some going as far to claim that it stokes anti-Muslim sentiment. One could probably argue that the filmmakers are out of their cultural depth, locking their famously roving camera on a community unfamiliar to them. But the two have spent their careers dramatizing, with sensitivity and compassion, the struggles of Europe’s socially and economically marginalized. Young Ahmed actively resists scaremongering, going out of its way to draw a distinction between Islam and those who commit violence in its name. There’s a scene, for example, of passionate but civil debate concerning Madame Inès’ choice to teach Arabic through music, deliberately designed to offer a spectrum of Muslim ideology. Likewise, the man grooming Ahmed for holy war is depicted as someone who has perverted doctrines of the faith to suit his own agenda. “What matters is protecting the mosque,” he eventually tells his young disciple. What he’s really doing, of course, is protecting himself.
If the Dardennes’ intentions are typically pure, it’s their dramatic instincts that atypically fail them here. The problem lies with the void of dogmatic single-mindedness around which they’ve built their movie. As played with stony reserve by the first-time actor entrusted with the role, Ahmed is as impenetrable to us as he is to the various folks trying, perhaps futilely, to get through to him. He’s all sullen zealotry all the time, and as realistic as that may be as a portrait of a young jihadist in training, it shuts us out of his thought process, where the real conflict rages. Maybe the Dardennes do lack the proper perspective to shed light on the soul of this particular character. Empathy has always been a key tenet of their work, but is it possible without understanding? Or maybe in media res was, for once, the wrong approach; actually witnessing Ahmed’s radicalization, instead of dropping in after he is already essentially brainwashed, might provide deeper insight than the acknowledgment that, yes, extremist cells often prey on troubled, angry kids. (The unclarified departure of his father is one of a few skimpy clues the Dardennes plant as to how and why the kid got mixed up with the imam in the first place.)
In so much as Young Ahmed ever approaches the gripping power of the writer-directors’ past triumphs, it’s mostly as an exercise in suspense, delivered via their usual lean, unsentimental style. Though under watchful eyes, Ahmed can’t escape his certainty that he has an imperative to visit “righteous” punishment upon a perceived enemy of the faith. There’s a certain queasy fascination to watching him attempt to fulfill that misguided calling, even as those around him—including his teacher and target, all but telegraphing her capacity for forgiveness—try to nudge him toward a redemption he doggedly resists. But who’s really engineering that redemption? Like many of the Dardennes’ prizewinning parables, Young Ahmed aspires to a closing moment of grace, a climax of transcendence. But this one is so hasty and unearned, so divorced from the character’s choices, that it almost feels like divine intervention—a literal deus ex machina from artists often celebrated for how subtly and organically their work conveys spiritual concerns. It also comes across, for the first time, like formula: the “Dardennes ending” reduced to a gesture, as expected as a tuxedoed spy turning to fire a bullet into the camera.