Although far less elaborate, the house style of Belgium's Dardenne brothers has by now become very nearly as recognisable as that of Wes Anderson: set a handheld camera to tailing a character's movements, and thereby quietly observe what those movements might tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of wider society. Their latest Young Ahmed represents by far the toughest, not to mention trickiest assignment the brothers have set for themselves. That camera is here set to tail the eponymous Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), a rather withdrawn and sullen Muslim teen as he takes his first steps on the road to radicalisation; the observation that follows is undertaken in the hope he may be apprehended or rerouted. A film by sixtysomething white men about the rockiest extremes of a religion to which they do not belong, Young Ahmed is nothing if not a film surrounded by potential pitfalls: it's a tightrope walk, a tiptoe through a minefield, a high dive headfirst into a pool full of crocodiles. No wonder the critical first responders at last year's Cannes approached with extreme caution, and could then be seen holding the results at arm's length. I'll add to their reservations that it took me longer to get into this Dardennes film than it generally has in the past: where we usually hit the ground running, there are some dogmatic debates early on here that require patient negotiation. Yet even this carefully placed obstacle speaks to the duty of care Young Ahmed feels towards the world these directors are entering. The conclusion they draw there - both about this one mixed-up kid, and about films about mixed-up kids like this - is that it's really all a matter of handling.
Clearly, Ahmed makes for a very different study than the plucky heroine of Rosetta, or Marion Cotillard's wide-eyed waif in Two Days, One Night: for once, the Dardennes have chosen for a protagonist someone who doesn't want anyone on or at his side. Instead, we're struck by the contradictions inherent in this character; the film succeeds in making that mixed-upness physical, visible. There is the restlessness of this kid's movements: a tightly packed ball of energy, he pounds the streets, flails through an almost comically crap attempt at a terror attack, and then stalks the corridors of the juvenile detention centre to which he is referred, developing a fixation with toothbrushes that will unnerve anyone who suffered through all six seasons of HBO's Oz. Yet every time he opens his mouth, we can't help but notice the inflexibility of his headspace. Ahmed is a walking illustration of exactly that type research has shown jihadists specifically set out to recruit: a boy raised to do things a certain way, who regards any change to the status quo - be that a delay to his prayer time or an influx of other religions - as a grave existential threat. (That mindset, we should note, isn't limited to any one creed or colour: I think you can equally see it in the responses of those flagbearing social-media warriors taking up arms against the need to close the pubs and wear masks in public during a global pandemic. They, too, have been recruited online to make loud noises in the service of a dubious cause.)
To these eyes, it looks as though the Dardennes have opened up more space around Ahmed than they have around their previous protagonists. (Compare it to 2002's The Son, where the camera sat on Olivier Gourmet's broad shoulders much as spectacles do on the bridge of the nose, and the difference is clear.) Taking a step back allows other characters, offering other perspectives, to enter the frame. So yes, we see the older boys egging on their charge to carry out their murderous orders; but we also sit with the mother approaching her wits' end ("you must change, Ahmed"), notice the absence of a father figure in this household, and wonder how that connects to the son's search for validation and affirmation, and hear out the counsellors and psychologists doing their level best to rewire this brain before something blows. That distance also permits us to get a better read on Ahmed as a kid, one whose natural curiosity - the curiosity he displays around the detention centre's petting zoo, and around the female farmhand who kisses him in a cabbage patch - has been diverted to no good end. The suggestibility on which Chris Morris founded the comedy of Four Lions now becomes the basis of a minor-key tragedy. Minor may be the keyword here, and possibly viewer expectations will themselves need to be carefully handled; the Dardennes haven't worked with an explosives unit before, and they're not about to start doing so here. What's crucial is that theirs is a resolutely non-fundamentalist approach. The message of Young Ahmed, calmly enhanced and pushed forward scene by scene, is that nobody is ever stuck on this path: there are byroads and roundabouts and off-ramps besides.
It struck me around the time of 2011's The Kid with a Bike that certain Dardennes films display the simplicity of a children's picture book: they follow a single character as they move closer to their stated goal, rarely deviating from that A-to-B trajectory. At just 85 minutes, Young Ahmed risks seeming too simple in places for such a complex subject: on balance, there may be too much Ahmed in the final cut and not enough of the people and material that gave him these ideas in the first place. (Granted, it's far more cinematic to keep a character moving than to have him sat gawping in front of a computer screen.) Yet this constant paring-down to the essentials of Ahmed's case helps the film retain its clarity of purpose - this is a very different radicalisation story to, say, Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch, which deliberately inserted gaps and ambiguities for the viewer to interpret - and even lends it an instructional quality, no matter that the Dardennes are keen to teach us where not to set foot. The enduring strength of the brothers' work is that this is that rare form of art cinema one could screen to young audiences and have them engage with it from the get-go. These images simply show what they show, and require very little decoding; nothing is allowed to get between us, the characters and the story being told, which leads to one genuine heart-in-mouth moment amid Young Ahmed's final movements, as we realise how far this kid is prepared to go, and that there may not be a safety net big or durable enough to catch him. Certainly no-one exposed to the film is likely to come away thinking religious fundamentalism is a cool, thrilling or necessary pursuit; the simplicity that has proven such a strength in these directors' films could turn out to be a lifesaver here.
Young Ahmed opens in selected cinemas, and will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema, from tomorrow.