Awards darling Parasite may have walked away with the Palme D’or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival but the Best Director award didn’t go to festival fave Bong Joon-Ho, it was awarded to long time Cannes favorites – and multiple award winners, including two Palme D’ors – the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc. And not without controversy.
Not unlike Fatih Akin’s recent, also Palme D’or nominated, In the Fade which profiled real-world extremism in a humanist light, Young Ahmed sees the Dardennes’ handling the subject matter of homegrown Islamic terrorism through the use of brainwashed children. On its own, this is already a troubling subject to potentially sensationalize and the filmmakers – known for realism and economical storytelling – don’t necessarily inspire confidence in handling the material with the sensitivity it deserves, which some critics and audience members have claimed is the unfortunate result.
I’m not sure that’s entirely fair though. Yes, the Dardennes’ are operating like business as usual with Young Ahmed, for better or worse. Its scant (barely 85 minute) runtime allows for the suspense to be consistent yet keeps any sort of didactic statement from forming. The camera feels almost free, calling to mind earlier films like Rosetta rather than something more polished like The Unknown Girl. And this all suits the coming-of-age sensibilities of the film rather well. Rather than being focused on the systemic nature of violence and the societal repercussions of such acts or, in this case, intended acts – the film ends up staying with the titular Ahmed and how he deals with the violence at the center of the narrative. If this has any peer in the Dardenne canon, it would be The Kid with the Bike, with a detention center case worker as a stand in for the charitable hair-dresser. Both deal with fractured adolescent realities that are (attempted to be) nurtured by well meaning adults who end up being in over their heads.
Like other Dardenne films, Young Ahmed rushes towards what seems to be a foregone conclusion yet feels abrupt regardless. Those looking for closure will want to look elsewhere but anyone interested in a dispute on ethics, responsibility and how we address violence in our society on a global scale should find plenty to ponder on their way out. This may be a minor film for the Dardennes’ and is arguably slight in dealing with its torn-from-the-headlines themes but its unmistakably the product of its creators.
Young Ahmed is now playing in theaters.