'Young Ahmed' (Le jeune Ahmed'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Cannes Film Festival
Idir Ben Addi in 'Young Ahmed'
A divergence from the directors' usual path that leads into the weeds.

The Dardenne brothers return to Cannes competition with a study of a 13-year-old Belgian-Arab boy who decides to punish his "infidel" math teacher.

Taking up their usual perch once again in Cannes' main competition like migratory birds whose round trips take a few years to complete, fraternal producing-writing-directing team Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne arrive with their latest trim slice of social realism, Young Ahmed (Le jeune Ahmed). This drama about a teenage boy (Idir Ben Addi) of Belgian-Arab descent who becomes radicalized by the local Imam and sets himself a murderous mission makes a slight swerve away from the more obviously sympathetic protagonists of the Dardennes' last few films. Instead, with his blank, set expression and almost Terminator-style determination to carry out his own private jihad, the titular hero harkens back to the more troubled and troubling characters in the auteurs' earlier work, especially the ones which earned them Palme d'Or prizes in the past, Rosetta and The Child, although this work doesn't pack the same punch as the best of its predecessors.

Nevertheless, it's made with the signature clarity, elliptical economy and empathy that earned the Dardennes' work so much praise in the past. But Ahmed sees the Belgian filmmakers switching things up a bit. For one thing, this is the first film they've shot not with their usual key collaborator, DP Alain Marcoen, but with newcomer Benoit Dervaux, who brings an ineffably different feel and lighting quality to the work, even if he sometimes seems to be tracking closely to the handheld, darting and swooping style of Marcoen. Perhaps more importantly, though, this is one of the first times the Dardennes have attempted to probe an identity just a little beyond their usual orbit of white working-class Europeans.

Not that that milieu is in any way unfamiliar to Ahmed, who was seemingly born into it with a white Belgian mother (Claire Bodson). Ahmed's father, mysteriously, is nowhere in sight, and we don't learn where his family came from originally or how devout they were. Ahmed's mother has seemingly tried to give her kids access to Islamic culture, even though she isn't a practicing Muslim herself. Indeed, the fact that she occasionally partakes of alcohol enrages her son, whose new fervent devotion to Koranic scripture and customs is apparently a very recent thing. "Only a month ago, you were playing with your PlayStation, and now all the posters are gone from your walls," she complains during an argument with the bespectacled, Afro-haired Ahmed, whose expression seldom gives anything away. Later, he calls his sister a "slut" for wearing skin-baring European fashions.

It's possible I may have missed an explanation thrown in quickly amid the fast-spoken dialogue, but it would seem there's no accounting for what flipped the switch in Ahmed and spurred him to start acting like this, praying five times a day, refusing to touch his female teachers via handshake and attending a local mosque. There, Imam Youssouf (Othmane Moumen) preaches hatred against "infidels" like Ahmed's math teacher Ines (Myriem Akheddiou), who once help Ahmed with his dyslexia years back but is now dating a Jew. The Imam, who looks only a little older than Ahmed himself, celebrates martyrs who have shed blood and sacrificed their own lives for holy jihad. Ahmed even has a cousin abroad who made exactly this kind of sacrifice and now he has a website devoted to him.

Whether he's merely been inspired by this very 21st century form of digital canonization and then effectively brainwashed by Youssouf or whether there's a deeper reason (rebellion against Maman? repressed desire?), Ahmed decides he must kill Ines as retribution for her Jew-dating, infidel ways. But killing a full-grown woman with a kitchen knife when you are just a doughy, if fairly tall, 13-year-old boy is harder than it looks. When the attack goes wrong, Ahmed turns to Youssouf for help; the latter is pissed that this attempted violence will make his mosque look bad. ("You're supposed to wait until the jihad!" he chides his gormless disciple.)

With a single cut, the Dardennes jump ahead to find Ahmed in a juvenile detention facility where social workers, psychologists and judges all discuss how to do the best thing for him. They even convince themselves, despite any real evidence, that he's contrite and wants to make amends when he asks to see Ines, thinking he wants to apologize. Au contraire, he wants to have another go at killing her with a toothbrush filed into a shiv that he's hidden in his sock.  

One of the qualities that makes the Dardennes so admirable when it comes to depictions like this of amoral, irrational or just plain dumb behavior is their refusal to provide pat psychological explanations. We don't know why Ahmed has snapped like this, just as we're never told why Jeremie Renier's character would think it was a good idea to sell his own newborn son to human traffickers in The Child.

But when it comes to a subject as contentious and raw as religious extremism and its disenfranchised discontents, some viewers may feel their hands-off, stuff-happens, it-just-is approach to motivation won't quite cut it. If the Dardennes can't really tell us how kids like Ahmed get set on the path to violence, and then show that nothing — not rehabilitation from the state, not a mother's love, not even a chance of PG-rated intimacy offered by pretty farmer's daughter Louise (Victoria Bluck), whom Ahmed befriends while on a work-release program — will change his mind, then what are we supposed to feel about him? What makes his story worth telling as opposed to, say, Ines' story or that of Ahmed's mother, or even Youssouf, who seemingly fits his jihadist recruiting and hate-preaching duties around running a small grocery like a good Belgian bourgeois citizen?

It's not that we want the Dardennes to map everything out on a dramatized political science flow-chart for us like Ken Loach does with his recent films. But this focus on one fictional child of violence tells us little more about what makes people tick than all the attention paid by the media to those who commit mass murder, damaged souls whom some have suggested we shouldn't even name because it just feeds the syndrome.

In the end, Young Ahmed feels like little more than a pained shrug, elegantly made, yes, but vaporous and virtue-signaling an empathy that's more gestural than heartfelt. It possibly doesn't help that Idir Ben Addi is not the most charismatic young performer the Dardennes have worked with, though maybe he was directed to keep that poker baby face on throughout. As with his character here, it's hard to guess what the Dardennes were thinking.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Idir Ben Addi, Myriem Akheddiou, Claire Bodson, Olivier Bonnaud, Victoria Bluck, Othmane Moumen
Production:A Les Films du Fleuve, Archipel 35, France 2 Cinema, Proximus, RTBF (Belgian Television) co-production with the participation of Canal +, Ciné +, France Televisions, Wallimage (Wallonia), the Brussels-Capital Region, produced with assistance from the Film and Audiovisual Center of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation and Eurimages, with the support of the Tax Shelter of the Belgian Federal Government, Casa Kafka Pictures, Casa Kafka Pictures Movie Tax Shelter empowered by Belfius, in association with Wild Bunch, Diaphana, Cinéart, BIM Distribuzione
Directors/screenwriters: Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Producers: Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Denis Freyd
Executive producer: Delphine Tomson
Director of photography: Benoit Dervaux
Production designer: Igor Gabriel
Costume designer: Maira Ramedhan-Levi
Editor: Marie-Helene Dozo
Sales: Wild Bunch

No Rating; 84 minutes