The minute we are born is the only time that we, relatively speaking, are all equal. A blank canvas waiting to be transformed by the artist, an amalgamation of family, friends, and our surroundings. In Dina Amer’s directorial debut “You Resemble Me” in which she stars and co-wrote, the “product of our upbringing” concept is explored as two young sisters on the outskirts of Paris, just a few years apart in age, flee an abusive mother to live on the streets. After being separated and put in foster care, the oldest, Hasna, grows up to become known as Europe’s first female suicide bomber, shocking to those who knew her as a fun-loving cowgirl who loved the club life.

On November 18, 2015, five days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, VICE reporter Dina Amer headed to the working-class suburb of Saint-Denis to cover a police raid on a building where the mastermind of the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, had barricaded himself. After a 2-hour shootout between the militants and over 100 French police and military, a series of explosions ended the assault that resulted in the death of Abaaoud and his cousin 26-year-old Hasna Aït Boulahcen who became known as Europe’s first female suicide bomber. Just 10 months earlier, Hasna was a free-spirited Paris clubgoer who dealt drugs on the side, while sporting her favorite Western hat. She was nicknamed “the cowgirl of the hood”.

What made Hasna trade in her cowboy hat for a niqab and pledge her allegiance to ISIS? To answer that question, Amer takes us back to her childhood.

The film opens as 9-year-old Hansa (Lorenza Grimaudo) and her younger sister Mariam (Ilonna Grimaudo), age 6, laugh and play among the tourists in the streets of Paris. The two wear matching dresses with holes where the security tags were cut out, it doesn’t take us long to figure out how the dresses were acquired.

Back home the girls’ older brother Yousef (Djino Grimaudo) awaits with pastries, and a backpack filled with books, stickers, and novelty items to help celebrate Hansa’s birthday. Along with their toddler sibling, the kids laugh, dance, and sing awakening their mother (Sana Sri) who walks into the room complaining about the noise. She has forgotten her daughter’s birthday and quickly comments that they should sell all the items in Morocco because they need the money. This includes the matching dresses worn by Hansa and Mariam. As the girls resist, their mother tries to pull the dresses off, Yousef pulls her off the girls and she begins to beat her son. The girls flee deciding to live on the streets of Paris.

The story moves forward as the girls are taken off the streets and placed in foster care. The authorities decide it would be best if they were separated and placed with different families. This is where the film shifts the focus to Hansa now living with a French middle-class family. They treat her well but she’s unhappy being separated from her sister and so Hansa often roams the city streets at night sporting her now signature cowboy hat, feeling alone and out of place.

The miseducation of Hansa begins as she naively accepts a ride from an older man who attempts to rape her. Hansa escapes and seeks solace at her old home, but is turned away by her mother who comments, “You’re gonna turn into a whore.” After getting the door slammed in her face, Hansa, feeling defeated, leans up against the door contemplating her mother’s hateful words. It’s the last time we’ll see her as a child.

“Resemble” feels like two different films. The first, a coming-of-age story, is compelling to watch as we see Hansa and Mariam attempt to hold on to their youth while the world around them seems to be forcing them into adulthood as they strive to survive. The performances by Lorenza and Ilonna, sisters in real life, are so natural that it’s hard to believe they’ve never acted before. Amer fell in love with the sisters during the casting process, their application sent in by their mother. According to the director, it was their “strength and closeness” that won Amer over who also cast their brother Djino to play Yousef.

The second half of the film deals with adult Hansa, now in her mid-20s, still sporting her Western calling card. We first see her on the dancefloor of a Paris disco. She drinks liquor from a bottle while swaying to the beat, closing her eyes, and thinking, “I can change who I am and make the whole world fall in love with me.” She’s played by actress Mouna Soualem who began acting at age 11 appearing in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.” But Soualem is not the only person playing the adult Hansa. Using Deepfake technology, Amer and actress Sabrina Ouazani appear at times as Hansa to illustrate the character’s multi-faceted personality and aspirations of who she wanted to become. It’s haunting and jarring as faces morph seemingly throughout the film.

Watching Hansa deal drugs in a nightclub restroom, get assaulted by a client, and be forced to perform sexual favors on a “friend” in exchange for a warm place to sleep, establishes how far down the rabbit hole the once free-spirited little girl has fallen.

One day while watching television she sees a news report about a radicalized Islamist who she recognizes as her cousin Hamid whose father beat him with a flip-flop so often that everyone started calling him that. Now a wanted terrorist and ISIS leader, she responds to an internet recruiting message to reach out to her cousin. Picking up on her desperation he begins planting the seed, promising a better life to his childhood friend if she joins him in Syria.

“You Resemble Me” spends a relatively short amount of time on Hansa the terrorist and that’s because Amer drives home the point that Hansa was never part of the organization, more of a pawn used by her cousin to help carry out the deadly Paris attacks. While working as a reporter for Vice, like many other media outlets, Amer reported that Hansa was the first female suicide bomber in France. Footage emerged after the bombing during the Saint-Denis raid of a woman believed to be Hansa calling for help which conflicted with previous reports.

Prior to the film’s last 30 minutes, Amer’s film is a portrait of sisterhood and how someone is molded into becoming who they are by family, friends, and their surroundings. You may forget your watching a film about radicalization until the final chapter. “You Resemble Me” is a gripping film about the essence of human nature. It evokes empathy and may even cause you to reflect on the choices you’ve made in life, long after leaving the theatre.

(4 stars)

Now showing in limited release

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.