Dirs: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne. Cast: Idir Ben Addi, Olivier Bonnaud, Myriem Akheddiou, Victoria Bluck, Claire Bodson, Othmane Moumen. Cert tbc, 84 mins
Alfred Hitchcock had a neat way to distinguish between surprise and suspense. If you’re in the market for the former, all you have to do is set off a bomb, but to generate the latter, the audience has to see the device being primed, creating a painful awareness – ideally not shared by the poor saps on screen – that it might go off at any minute. Young Ahmed follows this law to the letter, except here the bomb is a boy.
His name is Ahmed Abou Salem, and he is the 13-year-old Muslim lad at the centre of the new film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; he’s been radicalised by a fundamentalist imam and is itching for DIY jihad. The Belgian brothers have spent much of their shared career chronicling Walloon working class lives, and youthful perspectives have been a regular feature of their work, from 1996’s La Promesse to 2011’s The Kid with a Bike.
But in Young Ahmed, the boy’s point of view is toxically at odds with the film’s compassionate outlook, and the task facing those around him – his mother (Claire Bodson), caseworker (Olivier Bonnaud) and a pretty girl he meets on a young offenders’ scheme (Victoria Bluck) – is to wrest him from one to the other before it’s too late.
When we meet Ahmed, he’s scampering to the school toilet to illicitly text his older brother – not to share news or a joke, but to plan their trip to the mosque for afternoon prayer. His approach to Islam is one of an obsessive teenage hobbyist: the appeal seems to be that it’s an all-consuming energy suck, an excuse to sneer at classmates and family members, and a cheap justification of keeping the opposite sex at a wary remove.
So when his imam (Othmane Moumen) labels his progressively minded teacher Inès (Myriem Akheddiou) a “bitch” and an “apostate”, the indoctrinated Ahmed takes this as his cue to intervene on Allah’s behalf. His decision takes him to a detention centre, where a group of adults attempt to de-programme him with an appearance of success – though the boy’s blank body-language and empty, glasses-shielded gaze suggest that he may be role-playing reform. It’s a concern that his subsequent actions seem to bear out.
Meticulously capturing entire scenes in single takes in their unvarnished, observant signature style, the Dardennes are customarily attuned to inter-character tensions; this becomes their core strategy for unlocking Ahmed’s mindset. There’s a terrific scene between the boy and his mother where he complains that the labourers on the farm where he’s on a work placement are “too nice”. “Would you prefer them to be nasty?” his mother says – and is shocked to hear him admit that he would.
Yet fanaticism – even in one so young and theoretically still savable – is a uniquely bad match for the brothers’ methods. Because Ahmed soaks up warmth and concern and gives nothing back, he becomes the emotional version of a radio dead-spot, where the signal conks out and leaves you listening to static. The Dardennes have created many underdogs worth rooting for despite their flaws, but this one you’d gladly see carted off to the pound.