Dardenne Young Ahmed

Idir ben Addi in Young Ahmed

The Dardenne brothers stoke controversy with Young Ahmed

Despite the racist optics, Young Ahmed is perhaps more exceptional because it just isn’t very good.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are not exactly the kind of filmmakers who usually court controversy. The most heated debates around their work tend to revolve around whether or not every single one of their films should or should not be screened in competition at Cannes. It was therefore a little surprising that the Dardenne brothers’ film Young Ahmed was clouded in controversy when it premiered at Cannes in 2019, with many casting a suspicious eye on the fact that these white, middle-aged Belgians were making a film about a teenage jihadist. Barring the fact that most teenage jihadists are not really in the business of making films about themselves, most questioned whether or not the Dardennes were the most qualified to tell this story. 

In a way, they aren’t. Though their films have sometimes dealt with issues of illegal immigration in Belgium (La promesse, La fille inconnue), their minimalistic, realistic dramas tend to have social rather than political implications. A movie about a teenage jihadist has political implications whether or not the filmmakers acknowledge or emphasize this textually, and it remains pretty difficult to rationalize that filmmakers as emphatic and tuned-in as the Dardennes wouldn’t know that. On the other hand, Young Ahmed makes a pretty strong case for being right in line with the rest of their work — a film about very grounded struggles and very clear social pressures. Unlike the rest of the Dardennes’ films, however, it just isn’t very good.

Ahmed (Idir ben Addi) is the only practising Muslim in his family, the youngest child being raised by a white mother (Claire Bodson) in Belgium. Ahmed has, it’s suggested, recently begun clinging to the teachings of a local imam (Othmane Moumem) to the concern of nearly everyone around him. Perpetually butting heads with his mother for her supposed heretical leanings, Ahmed eventually gets in trouble at school for refusing to shake hands with a teacher (frequent Dardennes collaborator Myriem Akheddiou), something that “real Muslims” don’t do. The subsequent punishment pushes Ahmed to plot to murder the teacher as a protracted start to his eventual jihad. 

Accusations of stereotyping or xenophobia may have been exaggerated. Ahmed is depicted as grabbing on to extremism as a lonely and confused teen rather than having been recruited or somehow swayed by his surroundings. The Dardennes’ argument for his beliefs is closer to what might be explored in a movie about school shootings than the anti-Muslim screed some have accused the film of being. Even the imam, a resolutely unchill dude by any metric, is depicted as disapproving of Ahmed’s conclusions about religion. Young Ahmed nevertheless butts up against a problem that affects the bulk of fiction about religious extremism — that it’s so illogical and so reliant on steadfast, outwardly irrational conviction that it makes characterization extremely difficult. There are attempts at probing Ahmed’s psychology, of course, but the Dardennes’ extremely removed style and dramatic minimalism cannot entirely make up for the fact that Ahmed is so unknowable and driven by ideology.

It doesn’t help that ben Addi (a non-professional, as is often the case with the Dardennes) isn’t the most expressive or personable of actors. While that seems to be a conscious choice (his Eugene Levy-esque vibe makes him the unlikeliest of terrorists) by the filmmakers, it makes most of the movie feel schematic and unmoored. The best way I can think to describe it is it seems like someone aping the Dardenne brothers’ style with rigorous precision but without a firm grip on their material.

For all of its flaws, tangible or not, Young Ahmed remains reasonably compelling. As always, the Dardennes remain better than nearly everyone at filming almost nothing happening and making that nothing feel momentous. The reasons why Young Ahmed don’t work are not, paradoxically, because it is badly made or even because the Dardenne brothers don’t understand the material. In all honesty, I would probably have given this exact same movie an extra half-star if the director on it had been anyone other than the Dardennes. Having heightened standards to such a degree that even their near-masterpieces were deemed somewhat disappointing was going to have to bite them in the ass at some point. This is that point. ■

Young Ahmed opens in theatres (in its original French version only, as Le Jeune Ahmed) on July 10. Watch the trailer here:

Young Ahmed by the Dardenne brothers

For more film coverage, please visit the Film section.