‘You Resemble Me’ Review: Fractured Life of a Radicalized Frenchwoman Becomes a Kaleidoscopic Biopic

Sisters Hasna and Mariam look alike and inseparable, a few years apart but bonded like twins, sporting identical floral dresses (minus the snipped-off security tags) as they bounce around the fringes of their Parisian housing estate while their neglectful mother sleeps. What these twirling balls of energy say to each other at their most connected — like a mantra of togetherness in a world of hardship — is the title of Dina Amer’s narrative feature debut: “You Resemble Me.”

But that title could also be what Amer hopes the older sister, Hasna, might say today, if she could, about the bursting, restless slice of tragedy that tells her story — a troubled girl from a broken home and an isolating foster system who becomes a lost, searching woman introduced to the wider world through her worst decision: getting involved with the terrorists who lay siege on Paris in November of 2015, dying in an apartment blown up by a bomb.

Amer, an Egyptian-American reporter who covered the Bataclan attack and its aftermath, got to know Hasna’s family after the press (including Amer herself) erroneously reported right out of the gate that Hasna, seen in a published photo wearing a niqab and making “V” signs, was “Europe’s first female suicide bomber.” (Hasna had actually tried to escape before a male colleague detonated his device.)

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What Amer uncovered was a life of dislocation and chaos, of first-generation rootlessness in an other-izing France. (The parents came from Morocco.) Amer believed Hasna deserved a non-judgmental, immersive telling aimed at understanding where radicalization is most easily bred, and “You Resemble Me” is all that reporting distilled into a blunt, well-paced, mostly effective portrait of someone pushed and pulled into a state of permanent imbalance.

Hence, the nervy opening shot in which pre-teen Hasna (Lorenza Grimaudo) is on her apartment balcony, practically hyperventilating as she leans over, contemplating a jump. Is it escape? Adventure? Her decision not to carry through is instantaneous, sealed by a defiant spit over the railing. Besides, it’s her younger sister’s birthday — and mom (Sana Sri) is unavailable, a bad thing, as well as good — so Mariam (Ilonna Grimaudo) deserves Hansa’s undivided, spirited attention. As they roam the streets, Amer and cinematographer Omar Mullick (HBO’s “The Vow”) capture their unsupervised freedom with an active, handheld, close-to-the-ground perspective that foregrounds both their closeness and the precariousness of this existence.

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Soon, the authorities are involved, separating them from their mom and each other, and when the film segues to the adult Hasna — a drug-using party girl working at a café, crashing at a friend’s, and out of touch with Mariam — she’s played by Mouna Soualem. But sometimes, thanks to Deepfake technology, it’s Sabrina Ouazani’s face we see, and even Amer’s herself. The face-morphing is intended to externalize Hasna’s identity-fracturing at times when she’s posturing or vulnerable, but it isn’t nearly as successful as the childhood half’s depiction of adjustable identity, when a restive camera and the clever casting of real-life siblings wearing the same dress naturally blurs our ability to distinguish close-knit sisters.

Amer isn’t flashy with her gimmick; occasionally, it’s appropriately unsettling. But it’s unfortunate Amer didn’t allow Soualem, thrillingly mercurial in her portrayal, to convey Hasna’s shifting identities as a whole performance. That’s particularly the case when she makes contact with her cousin Abdelhamid (Alexandre Gonin), a known ISIS recruiter, and their online exchanges — a one-way campaign taking advantage of her need to belong — veer into the overly imagined.

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More efficiently heartbreaking is a moment alone with Soualem’s Hasna when she takes a series of enthusiastic selfies in her new Islamic gear. We can see the cosplaying child still, the mix of pride and helplessness that leads to a photo, and narrative, that would eventually define her before the reality could be understood.

Amer makes one more stylistic swerve at the end, folding in news and interviews and her own footage of Hasna’s family members, one of whom is shown putting flowers at the Bataclan memorial site, wondering if she ever really knew her. Again, it’s a curious closing choice since it detracts from our processing the vigorous depiction of a frayed soul that is “You Resemble Me.” But being left with real people has its own power, too, because whether we read about someone like Hasna or watch such a sad journey dramatized, it’s worth being reminded that stories like these always leave behind many who are forced to reckon with a society’s notion of what and whom they resemble.

“You Resemble Me” opens in NYC Nov. 4 and LA Nov. 11.