Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother The Devil is one of the most eye opening and thoughtful debut features of the year. It’s a story of brotherhood told with an ear for the past and eyes on the future infused with an immense amount of wisdom that neither of the film’s two main character are ready to understand. It places the burden of knowledge on the audience, making for a wrenching, but truly satisfying watch.
In London’s Hackney district young Mo (Fady Elsayed) idolizes his older brother Rashid (James Floyd). Their somewhat traditional Egyptian parents belong to the sort of “no class” British lifestyle between the poor and the upper middle, but that doesn’t stop either brother from dreaming of greener pastures. Mo idolizes Rash because he’s on the verge of becoming a major shot called in a ruthless street gang of young thugs known simply as DMG (Drugs Money Guns).
Rash tries to bring Mo in at first, but the young man is far too green and puts himself in danger one time too many. Mo also admires the fact that he’s a bit of the ladies man he secretly wants to be. Things change almost like intersecting trending lines on a graph when Rash gets shook following the death of a close friend and a subsequent conscience of faith. Mo then looks down upon big brother when Rash decides he wants to go straight working for a street photographer (Said Taghmaoui) and sets off to make his dangerous living all on his own. Rash has always wanted to make enough cash to send Mo to university (even while in the gang), but the allure of money, friends, drugs, and women combined with a perceived betrayal from his brother serve to drive a wedge further between the pair.
My Brother the Devil is a coming of age tale in the best sense of the term. It’s a lot of emotion conveyed through fascinating characters to give an epic look at a close, but fracturing relationship. El Hosaini, herself from the neighbourhood she’s capturing, has a real feel for setting and character. It’s the strange middle ground where the suburbs meet the big city, and Mo and Rash are forced to move through both of them at various points with different expected levels of decorum. Her view isn’t rosy or even overly bleak, but realistic. Each brother gets into hot water via an ever escalating cycle of secrets they refuse to come clean on, but their decisions come with a conviction suggesting those secrets don’t matter.
The secrets come as a result of a really unforeseen plot development just past the halfway point of the film, just past the point where they begin to have the opposite arcs and the film ceases to be a traditional kind of gangster drama in the same vein as a pre-code Warner Brothers film updated to modern street philosophy. It’s a daring plot development, but one that makes sense in the grand scheme of things, and is helped by the casting of Taghamaoui, who following his turn in the gold standard for these kinds of film (La Haine) brings a sense of world weariness to his turn as the sage voice of reason and Rash’s new confidant.
The leads deliver commanding performances and are well cast. As a more professional actor, Floyd gets the older role while first timer Elsayed gets the part of the eager pupil. They play extremely well off one another, developing an incredibly nuanced brotherly relationship under El Hosani’s tight and intimate direction. Neither the actors or the director ever create a false moment that seems out of place. It’s artful, stylish, and bold, and it marks the arrival of some potentially major talents.