Cannes 2019 review: Le jeune Ahmed (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

In a country like France, which had its fair share of Islamic extremist terrorist attacks in the past decade, a film like Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s latest, Le jeune Ahmed, might hit a little close to home. The topic of a young Muslim teen rapidly radicalizing is a hot one all over Western Europe at the moment, so the film is certainly timely, but whether it actually has something poignant to say about it (if it even wants to) remains food for debate.

At the start of the film we meet the young Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), a Belgian teenager, as he has already become stricter in his faith and adherence to Islamic rules. The path that led him to this point is not illuminated, although through a number of meetings Ahmed has with his imam (Othmane Moumen) it is suggested that he was carefully groomed. His increased piety leads to problems at school, where he refuses to shake the hand of his teacher Mme. Inès (Myriem Akheddiou), and later derides her for having a Jewish boyfriend, as well as at home where he accuses his sister of dressing too provocatively and calls his mother (Claire Bodson) a drunk. His inspiration is his brother, who died as a martyr fighting in Syria. After attempting to murder his teacher, he is sent to a youth correctional facility where he seems to grow close to Louise (Victoria Bluck), who helps out at the farm connected to the facility. Can she put the young Ahmed on the right path?

Le jeune Ahmed unfolds as any Dardennes film unfolds, that is to say without any big melodrama. Their usual helicopter view lets the screenplay and the acting do the heavy lifting, but it is precisely because of the hot-button topic that their stand-off approach does not work: in this case, we would like to see some build-up in Ahmed’s character, some background on how he became radicalized, what exactly is being taught to him. One scene of the imam talking about music and apostates is not enough characterization. Le jeune Ahmed does illustrate the conflict between conservative Islamist views and Western ones particularly well in a parents/teacher discussion about whether the children should only learn Arabic through the Qur’an or also, as the teacher wants, through songs. But for most Europeans this will not exactly be illuminating: there is a reason the far right is on the rise in Europe.

There is also the issue of Ahmed’s redemption arc, if there is one. Without giving the ending away, it is not clear if the Dardennes want to redeem their young protagonist, but if they do his actions are certainly not enough for the audience to actually experience that. The ending, like the beginning, is abrupt, and like the missing background story at the start of the film we need a bit more from the end of the film to give it proper closure when we are dealing with such a politicized topic.

Ahmed himself is a bit of an enigma, not in the least because Ben Addi plays him without much emotion. What goes on in the mind of that young kid remains a mystery, which in turn does not inform the viewer about the problem of radicalization in general. What moves these kids? It is not up to the Dardennes to provide any sort of solution for the problem, but a little understanding of the thought processes of their protagonist should be in order. They have had central child performances in their films before, but there one could better understand the actions of the young characters because they were born out of more recognizable emotions. In this case it is much harder, because the audience is farther removed from the character’s extremist ideas. The performances of Akheddiou and Bodson resonate more, both because they understandably show more emotion, and because these are emotions we can better place: the despair of a mother over her son trying to kill his teacher may be something we have not ourselves experienced, but we have enough empathy to be able to place ourselves in her mindset.

Le jeune Ahmed is a film that touches upon an important and timely topic, but the touch is only light. A little more digging could have made this a major effort from the Belgian brothers, but the film feels like a missed opportunity to say something profound or at the very least informative about the problem it presents.