Ed Film Fest at Home reviews: Young Ahmed | Clemency | Saint Frances

This year’s Edinburgh Film Festival is happening online – Scotsman film critic Alistair Harkness puts on the microwave popcorn
Idir Ben Addi and Victoria Buck in Young AhmedIdir Ben Addi and Victoria Buck in Young Ahmed
Idir Ben Addi and Victoria Buck in Young Ahmed

Covid-19 threatened to make this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival a literal non-event, but like a lot of organisations scrambling to offer something – anything – for its culture hungry audience, the festival has gone online with a bite-sized programme perfect for these waning days of lockdown.

Among the more prestigious titles launched earlier this week is the UK premiere of Young Ahmed (****), the latest from Belgian auteurs Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who will also be participating in a live online masterclass today (27 June). Following a 13-year-old Belgian Muslim newly radicalised by a local imam (Othmane Moumen), the film offers an account of the ease with which impressionable minds can be corrupted by extremist thought, as well as an empathic portrait of the challenge of deprogramming such hatred. Like earlier Dardenne brothers films such as The Son and The Child, this is another tale of wayward youth and the complex challenges such teens present to a society from which they feel apart. With typical brilliance and brevity, the Dardennes tease out the source of Ahmed’s rage in an absent father, a martyred cousin and the echo-chamber of the internet, but they don’t make excuses for him and one of the strengths of the film is the way it forces us to try to reconcile how unapologetically despicable his actions and attitudes are with his age – something aided by a remarkably assured performance from Idir Ben Addi in the title role.

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There’s a great lead performance in Clemency too ( ****), a hard-hitting drama about a black female prison warden (Alfre Woodard) presiding over the imminent execution of a prisoner (Aldis Hodge) who insists he’s innocent of murdering a police officer 15 years earlier. Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu (who became the first black woman to win the Grand Jury prize at Sundance last year), the film’s harrowing opening scene – in which an execution goes wrong – sets Woodard’s character, Bernadine, on a soul-searching spiral of self-doubt as her conscience starts throwing her professional achievements, her marriage and her sense of self into turmoil. Richard Schiff co-stars as the weary lawyer fighting to save his client and though there are opportunities for the sort of redemptive speechifying that might make this an easier viewing experience, Chukwu doesn’t indulge them, partly because she doesn’t have to: everything you need to understand about where the film is coming from is etched on her star’s face.

Anyone looking for slightly more uplifting festival fare could do worse than Saint Frances (***), a likeable indie comedy about a directionless 34-year-old woman who takes a job nannying a four-year-old for the summer. With her feelings on childhood complicated by a recent abortion and her own lack of a career, the film is rawer and scrappier than its mainstream-friendly premise suggests and even though some of the supporting performances and subplots feel a little under-cooked, it remains a witty and heartfelt calling card for its writer and star Kelly O’Sullivan.

Edinburgh International Film Festival at Home runs until 5 July. For screenings visit: www.edfilmfest.org.uk or www.curzonhomecinema.com

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