A low-key drama from celebrated filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre Dardennes and Luc Dardennes, “Young Ahmed” focuses on a Muslim teen in Belgium driven to violence. The film earned the duo the directing prize at Cannes in 2019 but doesn’t approach the level of their Palme d’Or-winning efforts, 1999’s “Rosetta” and 2005’s “L’Enfant.”
When we meet 13-year-old Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), he is already closed off from his family, intent on studying the Quran with a local imam at a storefront mosque and quietly embracing a more extreme form of Islam promoted by a charismatic online figure. More anesthetized than radicalized against the Western culture that surrounds him, Ahmed takes an almost somnambulant approach to his prayers.
It’s shocking when he methodically plots an attack on his teacher (Myriem Akheddiou), who dared to question the boy’s refusal to shake her hand, but we’re left to wonder about his true motivations (and whether or not he’s a sociopath).
After he is sent to a detention facility, Ahmed is unrepentant and remains inscrutable. When his mother (Claire Bodson) says, “I wish you were like before,” we can only agree.
He is assigned to do supervised work on a small farm where the farmer’s daughter (a winning Victoria Bluck) attempts to befriend him, but he appears unwilling or unable to leave the safety net that prayer and ritual afford him. Throughout the film, the Dardenneses effectively utilize Ahmed’s earlier crime to build suspense, but to what end?
The film never really delves beyond the level of observation and the simplistic explanations it does offer are not very satisfying; cloaking possible mental illness in religious zealotry simply clouds whatever the directors meant to convey.
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Playing: Starts March 6, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles