'Young Ahmed' Review: A Realistic But Uneven Look At The Effects Of Extremism [NYFF]

Belgian neorealist master filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne make films that might focus primarily on individuals, but they always echo back to some larger trend occurring in society. Similarly, there's usually a divide in their movies between what happens in the plot and what their stories are truly about. Until their latest film, Young Ahmed, the Dardennes always made film that did not feel like the themes were the starting point – they were an organic outgrowth of their deeply human tales.

In Young Ahmed, theme and narrative feel like one in the same. On its face, this is not some kind of disqualifying feature. But there are many moments in the film where it feels as if the film is a political statement in search of a narrative. While the Dardennes stop short of outright polemicizing, they might have been better served to just embrace more explicit messaging if they intended to elevate political undertones to such an undeniable extent.

It's hard to ignore, for example, that Two Days, One Night is a film about exploitative capitalism or The Unknown Girl is a film about the European migration influx. But the Dardennes always put their characters first, and it was through identifying with their struggles and travails that the audience could enter these complicated issues from a deeply humane angle. Young Ahmed, on the other hand, is about the conflict created by the titular teenager (a sensational Idir Ben Addi in an unflinching debut performance) as his instruction at an extremist mosque leads him to lash out. The early clashes stem from his espousing radical interpretations of the Quran, such as refusing to shake his female teacher's hand or claiming that the Belgian muslim population cannot live in peace with other religions. "Jews and Christians hate us," Ahmed declares.

His teacher Ines (Myriem Akheddiou) attempts to counter his fundamentalist instruction with a more modern interpretation of their Muslim faith, one that emphasizes values that comport well with their liberal society. Yet Ahmed's jihadist zeal quickly makes it clear to her and many others that the regressive influence of his imam requires a more forceful intervention. His community cannot simply talk him down; he needs deprogramming altogether. The film reframes jihadism not as something that only occurs in the far corners of the world. It's something that can grab a foothold even in developed democracies.

The most affecting moments in Young Ahmed come from Ahmed's violent outbursts, quick bursts of fury that the Dardennes capture with their typical verité style. These scenes prove so jarring because they make clear the stakes of what happens if society cannot counter his religious instruction. They disrupt the quietness and mundanity of everyday life with such electricity, yet it's to the Dardenne Brothers' credit that they can elicit such a response without sensationalizing Islam. By putting such a human face on radicalized youth and rooting his fanaticism in such observable reality, they make extremist religion scarier than any kind of insidious "Homeland"-style music ever could – and without demonizing an entire religion.

The Dardennes focus on the youth and immaturity of their protagonist, not necessarily to solicit pity or to excuse his behavior, but rather to illuminate just how much religion can warp an impressionable young mind. Their contemplation of differences in Islamic practice essentially ends there, and it's a bit of a stretch to make it last an already brief 80-minute runtime. The brothers tend not to dally much with their narratives, but even adjusting for their typical brevity, Young Ahmed feels like a cursory examination of the social issues they raise. It lacks the incisiveness of their other glances directly into the heart of Belgian society.

Still, there are flashes of their brilliance and reminders of why they are such revered practitioners of verité filmmaking. The Dardennes understand how audiences react to such triggers as violence puncturing veneers of civilization or a child in peril, and they use that to devastating extent in driving home their point. But the relative infrequency of such moments also serves as a reminder of how much the majority of Young Ahmed lacks their usual spark.

/Film rating: 6 out of 10