Young Ahmed: No Pride, by David Bax
In some ways, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have changed in the more than twenty years they’ve been directing movies. In the past decade or so especially, films like The Kid with a Bike and Two Days, One Night have even edged into sentimentality. But their aesthetic has remained, rewardingly, the same. It’s there from the very first moments of Young Ahmed, their newest, in which the title character (Idir Ben Addi) is already on the move, the camera trying to keep pace as he dashes from a classroom to a bathroom to surreptitiously call his brother to come pick him up. Despite his permanently unreadable visage, the Dardennes’ forward momentum and jump cuts betray Ahmed’s frantic inner drive. Unlike those other recent films, though, Young Ahmed bears not a trace of mawkishness, making it all feel like a bit of a throwback for the directors (even with the inclusion of a rare stunt in the final act). The end result wavers intriguingly between thorny and misguided.
Ahmed, who is not very old, is a Muslim Belgian boy who, by the time we meet him, has already been radicalized with the help of a local imam (Othmane Moumen). So Young Ahmed is no afterschool melodrama, like 2017’s Heaven Will Wait, about a good kid gone bad. Ahmed, with his peach fuzz face, is bad enough from the jump that it’s not too far into the movie before he decides to murder his teacher, Inès (Myriem Akheddiou), for the sin of teaching Arabic to children without using the Qur’an. His attempt fails and he gets sent to a juvenile rehabilitation center. But his resolve to end Inès’ life is not so easily shaken.
Just because we don’t see the process of Ahmed’s turn toward violent fundamentalism doesn’t mean the Dardennes don’t give us indications of how it happened. Like Chris Morris’ Four Lions–though obviously different in tone–Young Ahmed is an argument that one reason people may turn toward this kind of extremism is because they are, at the risk of being unkind, total losers. Mocked by his older brother for his bookishness and completely clueless around girls, Ahmed is, like a lot people who are way too into their religion, a big dork. And, as we’ve learned in too many real life tragedies, dorks can be dangerous.
This isn’t the first time the Dardennes have included violent children in their stories. But, in films like 2002’s The Son or the aforementioned The Kid with a Bike, plenty of the runtime was given over to the point of view of adults in close proximity. Young Ahmed feels more like 1999’s Rosetta in its rigid focus on its teenage protagonist. In that movie, our sympathy for the title character is encouraged by scenes of her dreadful home life and economic situation.
Ahmed, however, has a loving home with a caring mother and two relatively well-adjusted siblings. Despite the Dardennes’ usual probing curiosity, there is little to discover about Ahmed beneath his basic grievances and insecurities. Young Ahmed could be seen as an indictment, then, of our liberal impulses toward sympathy and tolerance. The correctional institute into which he’s placed, with its caseworkers and psychologists, is largely ineffectual. And the family who run the farm where Ahmed does his work release program, who go out of their way to accommodate his religious beliefs and practices, are rejected as being “too nice.”
Young Ahmed sets its lead on a singular mission–the slaying of his teacher–that we unequivocally don’t want to him to achieve while refusing to lay out any other goal or arc for him that we actually can get behind. To some, it will be a difficult but gratifying exercise in compassion without understanding. To others, it will be a dismissal of a would-be terrorist as a lost cause. Like with other such thoughtful, unpretentious works of art, your interpretation will say more about you than it does about the movie.