Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) is an isolated 13-year-old Belgian. He is never shown to have friends, his family life is strained, and his engagement in school leaves much to be desired. He would much rather be practicing to become what he and his teacher Imam (Othmane Moumen, 'Yadel') believe to be a "good" Muslim; this includes refusing to show females respect, praying constantly, and idolising his cousin (who, it is heavily implied, killed himself in the name of the Qur'an). His Arabic teacher (Myriem Akheddiou, 'Two Days, One Night') holds more contemporary ideas, dating across religions and believing that using popular music would be a useful way to teach young Muslims the language. Influenced by the poisonous words of his Imam, a concerning interpretation of the Qur'an and an ingrained abhorrence for his teacher's ideals, Ahmed sets into motion a chilling plan to retaliate against his teacher.
'Young Ahmed' begins with its protagonist having already been radicalised by Imam, and because of this narrative choice it's hard to gauge the degree to which he has been radicalised and how much of his social isolation is a product of this (Ahmed's mother crying and asking "What happened to you?" doesn't have nearly enough weight to fill in the narrative gap). It is implied that Ahmed was already socially isolated and therefore much more susceptible to the influence of Imam, but it is up to the audience to make what they want of the narrative. Ahmed is never presented as a likeable character, but that doesn't make it any less chilling watching him strategically place various sharp weapons down his sock. There's an inherent sense of disappointment each time one of these scenes occurs that's akin to watching each time Ewan McGregor falls back off the wagon in 'Trainspotting', and speaks to just how deep Imam has his hooks sunken into Ahmed.
A number of reviews, both professional and from internet blogs, have criticised the film for pedalling an "all Muslims are bad" mentality; however, I could not disagree more. While the film's three main Muslim characters have skewed moral compasses, there is not a single moment in this film that implies the filmmakers favour this idea. It is to the film's credit that it never once sensationalises the story when it could have been very easy to brush its characters in much less flattering, far more stereotypical strokes. Despite this, the choice to have Belgian-French directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne ('Two Days, One Night') tackle such a complex and sensitive issue seems particularly baffling. There's just an inherent "something" missing here that could be blamed on a number of factors, all of which stem from behind the camera, no doubt a result of the directors simply not having enough exposure to the content they are trying to explore to make anything meaningful with it.
The establishment of the film's tone works both to its advantage and to its detriment. The complete absence of a score and the story taking place within a vacuum adds to the tension, and by not bothering with excessive subplots (the only one of note is Ahmed's concern and disdain over his mother's drinking) there is no distraction from the heaviness of the main story. However, 'Young Ahmed' swings the pendulum a bit too far in the other direction. Massive jumps in the film's chronology skip moments that should be essential, such as the immediate fallout of Ahmed's attack. The film runs at an incredibly brief 84 minutes, and while it never feels too short or too long, even just another 10 minutes of run time to flesh out the story could have done wonders. As it is, the film is incredibly reductive and, at times, it is hard to believe that this was the final cut. Perhaps this is a result of the ill-fitting directors not knowing how to handle the material. The ending is particularly baffling, a half-arsed attempt to make a character that has for the entire runtime remained insufferable and unsympathetic into someone the audience is meant to suddenly feel sorry for (it could be argued that Ahmed earns audience sympathy through pity, but it is impossible to feel anything for the character besides anger. He is inherently unlikable).
There's just an inherent "something" missing here that could be blamed on a number of factors, all of which stem from behind the camera.
'Young Ahmed' was undeniably one of my most anticipated films of the Melbourne International Film Festival, and while I'm grateful for a new film by the Dardenne brothers, and while it is excellently shot and acted, I can't help but come away from this film incredibly disappointed.