The Dardennes paint by numbers a tad more than usual in their thus suprisingly-usual Young Ahmed.
The brothers’ movies tend to feel inside-out; they excavate the daily lives of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, normally victims of class struggles. Instead of being steeped in the heightened emotional theatricals customarily associated with celluloid depictions of poverty, the Dardennes take a more low-fi approach, submerging their stories in the malaise of insidious quotidian existence.
Though Young Ahmed‘s aesthetic is by no means littered with cinematic fireworks, the story’s a bit more sensationalized, as if they came at it from more of an outside-in perspective. Now, I’m not a proponent of restricting artists to stay in their lanes, a response that greeted the announcement of these two white French directors turning their cameras on the radicalization of a Muslim immigrant in France. Writers can strive to understand and convey stories far afield from their own; with rigorous study, an outside viewpoint can sometimes yield different, enlightening insights.
The harm would be if satellite tellings replace indigenous voices on such subjects, but art isn’t necessarily zero-sum. The risk is that audiences who only see the former may end up with skewed perceptions and thus conceptions, but to these eyes, artists aren’t beholden to potentially ignorant viewers.
Which is why Young Ahmed possibly bolstering anti-refuge sentiments does not make the movie Islamophobic to me. Who’s to say this is a representative tale? Audiences love to universalize stories, assuming one represents many, but Young Ahmed — as the title suggests — is the story of no one more than one solitary person. We love to wax pedantic about how the Dardennes’ micro movies are macro allegories for swaths of the population, but Young Ahmed seems interested more in individuality than reductive commonality.
And yet, with all that being said, from an artistic standpoint, filmmakers relating the experiences of others, not ones they’ve lived and lived thru the nuances of, can result in a product as intermittently generic as Young Ahmed.
The thespian who plays Young Ahmed is anything but generic, an example of inside-out acting within an outside-in film. If Sophia Lillis and Jaeden Lieberher/Martell reside in a performative no man’s land, with Nic Cage on the outsized end of the stylistic spectrum, then Young Ahmed‘s titular Idir Ben Addi’s on the other. He’s effortlessly, naturalistically understated, free of the straightforwardly-emotive expressiveness that the young often mistake for A-C-T-I-N-G. His placidly stoic exterior remains enigmatically distant, despite how freely his characters cops to his extreme beliefs. Even with his words and actions, he doesn’t fit the visual bill of the radicalized, a Dardennes-esque complication of the typical narrative we’re sold on such matters.