From Belgian auteur brothers the Dardennes comes Young Ahmed, their latest Cannes-acclaimed drama, which concerns a young Muslim boy whose head has been turned by the more radical factions of his religion. The titular Ahmed, played with stony-faced inscrutability by Idir Ben Addi, is a studious teenager who, just weeks before we encounter him, was apparently the typical picture of video game-playing adolescence. Now, however, he has fallen under the sway of his uncompromising imam Youssouf (Othmane Moumen), whose condemnatory language about his schoolteacher Inès (Myriem Akheddiou) leads Ahmed to make a desperate decision.
Early on, we’re given signs of the recent sea change that has taken place within Ahmed’s psyche. He shrugs off the attentions of Inès and refuses to shake her hand, while he chastises his mother’s drinking and his sister’s choice of attire. When Youssouf uses Ahmed as a pawn in his opposition of Inès’ plans to teach her students Arabic from sources other than the Qur’an and denounces her as an “apostate”, Ahmed takes his words literally and mounts a (thankfully unsuccessful) attempt on her life.
All of this plays out in the first act of the film, with its remaining hour-plus runtime devoted to Ahmed’s life inside the juvenile detention centre where he is, supposedly, being rehabilitated. It’s clear, however, that Ahmed harbours darker intentions than healing himself, despite the best efforts of all of those around him. A well-meaning case worker, a mother at her wits’ end and a passing love interest all implore Ahmed to change his mentality and embrace tolerance rather than extremism, but in his private moments with the camera, we can discern that their words and actions seem to be having little effect.
Ben Addi plays his role with believable stoicism and reticence, but the nature of the character means we are offered scant insight into the workings of Ahmed’s brain. The film’s decision to gloss over the actual indoctrination of Ahmed into militant behaviour and instead concentrate on his subsequent actions also skips over a huge and potentially fascinating chapter in his life. By contrast, Akheddiou wears Inès’ heart on her sleeve and steals each scene she appears in, communicating her character’s good-natured but increasingly desperate attempts to reach Ahmed with real pathos and empathy.
If the film begins at a point which prevents the audience fully understanding Ahmed’s motivations, its resolution is similarly unsatisfactory. The final moments grasp at a character arc which seems unearned and a revelation which doesn’t quite sit right, resulting in the feeling of an implausibly rushed redemption that jars with the plodding pace leading up to it. This, coupled with the other niggles laid about above, means that Young Ahmed is another respectable entry into the Dardennes’ canon, but one which falls some way short of their best work.
As part of the Edinburgh Film Fest At Home 2020