Terrorists aren’t born. They’re made.
The fascinating drama You Resemble Me has some ideas. Bring a child into a poor, dysfunctional, on-the-fringes family. Have her grow up beaten and bouncing around foster care. Add in sexual abuse, and then a drift into prostitution and drugs.
And then let her watch, riveted, as a young ISIS recruiter on Facebook posts videos about the evil West, its crimes against Islam, and the beauty of armed jihad. And then follow it all up with his simple message: Join us.
None of this is surprising, perhaps, at least to sociologists. But first-time filmmaker Dina Amer has her own surprises in store.
First, she starts her film in childhood, as Hasna and her baby sister Mariam run wild on the streets of Paris. They’re clearly neglected at home, often left to fend for themselves, but their bond is intense and the joy they take in simple things is sublime.
This is the first 20 minutes or so of the movie, its ugliness and poverty leavened by impish humor, and it feels a bit like The Florida Project – you think that, whatever may happen, Hasna is probably going to be OK.
But then the worst happens – social services come in and not only takes the children out of their home, but separates them. Placed with Christian, and quietly hostile foster parents – they serve her pork on Christmas, and insist she cleans her plate – Hasna runs away. She is almost immediately raped by a predatory stranger.
And her downward spiral begins.
At this point the film skips ahead a decade or so, and the young Lorenza Grimaudo is replaced by Mouna Soualem. And the director unveils her second surprise, with other actresses also occasionally stepping in to briefly play Hasna too. It works, thematically – Hasna is trying to figure out who she really is – but it feels a bit like the kind of post-modern trick Todd Solondz used to play.
Better is when we simply stick with Soualem, who is absolutely fierce in the role. We still feel that, deep down, this character is a survivor. But Soualem also makes it clear we can never know just how deep down Hasna’s wounds go. We only know, as we see her flailing around looking for an escape – drugs? sex? the military? – that real healing may be impossible.
Amer’s third and final surprise will be, for many audiences, her most profound: This is a true story. In fact, the film concludes with news footage, and extensive interviews with all of Hasna’s fractured family. We finally see not only where she ended up, but understand how she got there.
And the title, for some, will become not only clear but resonant: I may not recognize your specific struggles, or your particular choices.
But you resemble me.