The Dardenne brothers are two of the greatest modern filmmakers. Their films are consistently bursting with compassion, with their sharp focus on naturalism able to generate unbelievable amounts of tension and pathos out of premises that seem relatively mundane on paper – if you had told me a movie about a woman individually begging her coworkers to keep her job would have me as on edge and emotionally invested as any thriller I’d ever seen, I would have sneered. Their work often focuses on impoverished youth and the disenfranchised, depicting real-life issues of various magnitudes that many Europeans face, and their work is universally acclaimed. They’re prominent favorites of the Cannes Film Festival, with two of their films having won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, and nearly every other film they’ve made taking home a different award from the prestigious festival. Last year was no different, with their latest film Young Ahmed winning them the Best Director prize – a surprising win, considering the film’s execution is one of its major weaknesses.
The film drew controversy for its content, or rather its synopsis, which reads on paper – much like their entire catalogue – like a very different film from what appears on screen. Especially for those not familiar with with the Dardennes’ distinct brand of empathy via immersive naturalism, the logline sounds worrying in the hands of two older white men who admittedly don’t seem to be the easiest fit to tell a story about a young Muslim student who is under the spell of an extremist imam. But anyone fearful that they aren’t equipped to thoughtfully handle the sensitive subject matter can rest assured – their film smartly avoids simplistic condemnation and depicts dangerous extremism without casting aspersions against the specific religion that certain characters use to manipulate others and promote destructive ideologies. Unfortunately, though they don’t fail when it comes to the film’s thematic content, they don’t really succeed in many other aspects either.
The story follows Ahmed’s internal conflict as he’s conditioned by his mentor and imam to prepare for an impending jihad. His school teacher is much less strict when it comes to the teachings of Islam, and as a result, he plots an attack against her as a display of his devotion to his cause. These early scenes set up a palpable tension as the audience is bracing for the inevitable. This is one of the ways Young Ahmed sets itself apart from much of the Dardennes’ filmography, which often begins in medias res. There’s an enigmatic quality to their earlier work where the audience spends much of the runtime trying to piece together events that happened before the film begins – especially The Son, which gains so much of its emotional tension out of withholding key plot elements until nearly halfway through. Instead of adhering to traditional narrative structure, their work mostly drops the audience into the middle of the characters’ lives and eschews a conventional plot structure. Their recent films have abandoned that formula in favor of a more familiar approach, especially Young Ahmed, which could have been immensely improved by starting 30 minutes in, after Ahmed’s attack on his teacher, and allowed the audience to piece together the motivation behind his crime through the character dynamics.
Another major weakness is the central character. While the Dardennes are as compassionate towards him as they are any of their protagonists, they don’t offer the character much other than his steadfast devotion to his religion. Maybe it’s a manifestation of their unfamiliarity with the culture they’re portraying, but there’s much less care into making Ahmed a well-rounded character, and though it’s not the fault of the child actor, he displays none of the internalized anguish typical to their younger main characters – especially Cyril from their magnificent film, The Kid with a Bike, which is similarly about a young boy rejecting the positive influences around him. The easily-drawn comparisons to their other films only makes the disparity between Young Ahmed and the rest of their filmography seem like a vast gulf.
In many ways, like Michael Haneke’s last film, Happy End, from 2017, Young Ahmed plays like a retread of the filmmakers’ previous work akin to a greatest hits compilation that abandons the necessary B-sides which provide nuance to the hits. There’s a level of care missing from Young Ahmed that is unfortunate, and while I commend the Dardennes for stepping outside of their comfort zone to tackle more daring material, their lazy reliance on their tried-and-true formula in every other aspect, including the baffling decision to essentially replicate the ending from one of their best films, makes Young Ahmed by far the weakest effort in their incomparably strong career.