THE STORY – Sons of Caribbean immigrants, Francis and Michael face questions of masculinity, identity and family amid the pulsing beat of Toronto’s early hip-hop scene.
THE CAST – Aaron Pierre, Lamar Johnson, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Kiana Madeira, Lovell Adams-Gray, Maurice Dean Wint & Dwain Murphy
THE TEAM – Clement Virgo (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 120 Minutes
These days, it seems like the only method for a mainstream film to tackle the subject of grief is to force its subject matter under the veil of the horror genre. Not to say that many fine works haven’t been under this particular banner, but the exploration of trauma in this realm reached parody at this point. In many ways, it’s refreshing to see a story that circles around such heavy material actually rely on the human drama that exists in daily life to analyze such events in the authentic ways people’s lives are changed. “Brother” peers into a close-knit group whose situations are forever altered by tragedy, and it does so with a soulful artistry that creates a tender and captivating portrait.
The primary setting was the Scarborough district of Ontario in 1991. Francis (Aaron Pierre) and Michael (Lamar Johnson) are the sons of Jamaican immigrants scraping by in their lower-class life. Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake) works tirelessly as a single mother to support her family and protect her boys as best as possible from the festering crime in their neighborhood. As the elder, Francis attempts to look out for his younger brother, but his own ambitions and angst force him out of the home. When a great misfortune befalls the family, Michael is the one left trying to pick up the shattered pieces. Aisha (Kiana Madeira), an old flame from the past, comes back into Michael’s life to share in his heartache, leaving all involved to figure out how to tolerate their anguish in a moment of profound uncertainty.
Writer-director Clement Virgo creates a compelling landscape that not only examines the persistent heartache that follows a devastating event but how the attempts to mine any moment of joy are both frustrating and revelatory. There is a poetic artistry that imbues every sequence, aided by the stunning cinematography that forms such striking compositions with its framing. The characters feel both isolated in their emotions yet tethered by a bond that transcends this particular space. The narrative jumps back and forth in time, from the early 90s environment to a decade later, and even some scenes further in the past when the boys were innocent children. The juxtaposition often has sequences that mirror each other to showcase a new perspective on how these interactions change and evolve through the years. It’s an effective dichotomy that only makes this setting feel all the richer. Virgo peels back the layers to reveal a deep appreciation for the complicated worlds that exist within a small, fractured community.
However, the storytelling does occasionally steer itself into territory that leaves one disappointed at some missed potential. The focus has such a tight field of vision on the core set of players that it often neglects those that hover on the margins that do quite a great deal to impact the thematic weight. The local criminal element that drives most of the violence is felt with a blistering realism, yet the instigators are painted with a broad brush. There is an implication that one of the many conflicts that leaves Francis so distraught is his sexuality, and it is a topic that is brought up but never really dissected, leaving a significant portion of his mental state to seem unfulfilled and those connected to it tangential figures. This all leads to many portions seeming tedious, as if the thematic territory being mined is more shallow than initially realized. Fortunately, such missteps are not pervasive, but they do rob the material of a greater nuance that is elusive.
Johnson is actually the performer that holds most of the attention, and he does a magnificent job navigating the complex mentality he must embody. The naïve yet charming persona is endearing, particularly when cast in the shadow of his more imposing sibling. Yet, when his world is destroyed, the hardened exterior to mask the fragile core is just as engaging. It’s a soulful portrayal of immense humanity. The same is said for Blake, who can convey so much in her quiet sequences. It’s a heartbreaking example of a mother’s pain that can never quite be communicated in words but is severely felt in every fleeting action, and she carries every scene with a fantastic showcase. Pierre also has a great presence, even if he is sometimes undercut by the script, not giving his role a full picture that can appreciate the motivations better. The same is said for Madeira, who is quite capable in her screen time but not as impactful as the others.
There’s a powerful tone to “Brother” that is impossible to ignore while watching it. The film never shies away from the omnipresent danger, but it also takes care to show the great value in the light that can enter these lives as well. It discusses the antagonistic racial relations that can be felt today while prioritizing the personal connections within these groups that give them greater complexity. While aspects of the narrative limit the story from having even greater depth, what is presented is still a riveting analysis.