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Young Ahmed returns the Dardenne brothers to a keynote theme, expressed in movies such as The Child and The Son: the vulnerability of young people in trouble with the law – and also, paradoxically, their strength, their determination to survive. Theirs is a naive force derived from not caring or understanding how much they have to lose, or indeed how vulnerable are the adult figures placed in authority over them. This is a powerful movie with one very suspenseful “prison” scene – potentially suspenseful at any rate.
Another, more vulgarly commercial film-maker might have positioned this scene climactically later in the story and exploited its tension more brazenly; a more ruthless director in the Haneke mould might have done the same thing, but simply to produce a violent, pessimistic shock out of nowhere. The Dardennes are doing something different from any of this, although they once again show their tendency to solve third-act narrative problems with a melodramatic and almost farcical flourish – a chase across open country is not uncommon – and the ending here is not entirely satisfying.
Ahmed (played by newcomer Idir Ben Addi) is a 13-year-old Muslim boy in a small Belgian town, whose dad is no longer on the scene and whose mum is struggling with him and his sister. Lacking a father figure, perhaps, and inspired by a cousin who has apparently gone off to be a jihadi fighter (this figure is rather sketchily invoked) Ahmed has become radicalised by a local extremist imam (Othmane Moumen). As his exasperated mum says, only last month his great passion was playing video games.
Overnight he has become obnoxious and antisemitic, lecturing his mum on her drinking and his sister on her sexy and revealing clothes – and he now haughtily refuses to shake hands with his hardworking, caring teacher Inès (Myriem Akheddiou) because women are impure and because Inès’s boyfriend is “a Jew”. The imam encourages Ahmed to disrupt Inès’s plans for an after-school club to teach Arabic and Koranic verses using music, because this is sacrilegious. He says that it is all part of the western plan to secularise and dilute Islam. Ahmed is inspired to attempt a violent assault on Inès, which lands him in youth custody, where therapeutic treatments appear to be working wonders, and he convinces the authorities that he is sufficiently reformed for a “making amends” encounter with Inès herself. He might even get close enough for a contrite hug. But is that what he has in mind?
Ambiguity is important, of course, and perhaps the most important of Ahmed’s ambiguities is age: is he a boy or a man? He is on the cusp. As a kid, he need only face a relatively short custodial sentence (the terrified imam realises that this exemption very much does not apply to him, if he is proved to be complicit). As a kid, moreover, his misogyny and antisemitism have to be treated cautiously: they are objectionable poses that he has been duped into parroting, but challenging him too directly might cause him simply to retreat into self-important martyrdom that will persist into adulthood – and adulthood isn’t far away.
In the custodial centre, Ahmed meets Louise (Victoria Bluck), a teenage girl working on the farm who appears to like him, and there is a spark. But will this tremor of love extinguish his need for righteous violence, or do something else entirely? Ahmed’s prison life is in fact intriguingly unreadable: he may be fooling others, but perhaps the Dardennes’ film is showing us how, in a muddled way, he is facing up to the fact that he has been fooling himself. Yet much of the subtlety and plausible dramatic interest of Young Ahmed is abandoned with a hectic and unsubtly dramatic “chase” sequence, which the directors have created in the interests of a big finish, but this sequence and the final emotional gesture seem rushed and almost perfunctory. For all that, it is an involving story, with a strong lead performance.
• Young Ahmed screened at the Cannes film festival.
Source: The Guardian
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