A lovingly crafted and emotionally resounding look at the ways loss can extend beyond a single family and impact an entire community, writer-director Clement Virgo’s stellar adaptation of David Chariandy’s novel Brother is one of the most impactful and relevant Canadian films in quite some time. Packed to near bursting with richly detailed characters dealing with complex emotions being handled in empathetic, intricate, and thoughtful ways, Brother has the power to make what might look like a singular loss feel like everyone’s loss, rippling out to impact a wider area that can’t be ignored.
Brother bounces back and forth across roughly a decade, between 1991 and the early 2000s, depicting the relationship between Michael (Lamar Johnson) and his older brother, Francis (Aaron Pierre), the sons of a single, Jamaican immigrant mother (Marsha Stephanie Blake) living in Scarborough. Michael is a quiet, sensitive type, who’s protected from the harsher aspects of inner city life by Francis. With dreams of one day becoming a DJ, music loving Francis runs within tougher circles and is a frustrated, tightly wound, slow burning time bomb of emotions. When a wholly avoidable and senseless tragedy occurs, the family and their relationships within the greater community are altered forever, unable to move on from their state of emotional suspended animation years after the incident.
There have been many films that attempt to broach the subject of tragedy – especially within black and marginalized communities – with low key, delicate approaches, and they don’t always work because that sense of profound sadness has little room to breathe and expand. On the opposite end of the spectrum are similarly themed films that attempt to tackle subjects similar to those depicted in Brother with as much melodrama, misery, and contrivance as possible, in a bid to make the story as accessible as possible to an outside audience, but often resulting in a watered down, histrionic package that leaves complexity and identity in the dust. Brother is pitched perfectly in tone, allowing the imperfect nature of grief to be exhibited via a range of conflicted responses and coping mechanisms. Every ounce of Brother has been examined at both macro and microscopic levels, giving a platform to a wide range of voices in the process.
There are moments in Brother so attuned to the strange ways memory works that it captures the surreal feeling of being close to a void; wondering if one’s recall can be trusted or if something that awful actually happened in the first place. By cutting back and forth between past and present in such a tightly constructed manner, Virgo is able to build and inform his characters beyond the obvious. In lesser hands, the tonal and narrative shifts could seem either manipulatively jarring or like these people were stuck sleepwalking through their grief, but Brother nails a proper sense of equilibrium among a wide array of remembrances and responses. It’s a complete picture of feelings that are hard to box in or put into words, never suggesting that any one person carries all the right answers. (In many ways, Brother makes for a perfect pairing with another Canadian made, award winning drama that opens in select cities this week, Riceboy Sleeps, Anthony Shim’s equally moving and complex story of an Asian family dealing with a different sort of grief in both the 90s and beyond.)
And Brother allows those feelings to breathe and mutate across time, thanks to brilliant leading performances. Johnson displays both strength and angst as Michael, a person who was always sensitive, but becomes hyper-aware of those sensitivities the older he gets and without healthily processing his grief. Michael’s refusal to either celebrate life or quietly mourn leaves him at odds with his mother, portrayed brilliantly by Blake as a woman left in a perpetual state of shock, and also with Aisha (Kiana Madeira), the girl he once had a crush who has come back into town and wants to host a remembrance, an idea to which Michael is strongly opposed. As the flip-side of the brotherly relationship, Pierre puts on a masterclass of performance, delicately showing the softer sides of a character whose hard edges are purposefully on display for all to see by their own design. Pierre and Johnson have exceptional chemistry, which makes the distance between them all the more profound and understandable.
Aided exponentially by stunning cinematography from Guy Godfree (one of the best working in Canada today) and steeped in nice period details straight out of the 90s hip-hop scene, Brother is a deeply personal story that hits on topical issues of racial profiling, inner city poverty, toxic masculinity, the immigrant experience, and police harassment that are universal. These issues remain unchanged at best and in many ways are shown to have gotten worse for the characters that pass in and out of Michael and Francis’ lives. In this respect, Brother takes the form of a shared experience, full of reasons to rage, cry, and sometimes even celebrate. If there’s a single misstep in Brother, it comes in the form of using a well worn cliche – namely security camera and news footage that shows more than could credibly be believed – to deliver bits of key information and subtext, but other than that, Virgo’s work is of the highest calibre. Brother is an invitation not only to bear witness, but to sit down and reflect on what that means to different people, even those from the same family.
Brother opens in select Canadian cities – including at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto – starting Friday, March 17, 2023.
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