The loud sound of electricity buzzing from power lines hauntingly fills the air early on in Clement Virgo’s Brother, his highly anticipated return to feature filmmaking after 15 years. The buzzing is meant to warn of the danger that Michael (Lamar Johnson) and his older brother Francis (Aaron Pierre) are heading towards while climbing a local hydro tower. As Virgo’s film unfolds, it becomes clear that the fear of electrical current surging through one’s body is no match for the dangers that the brothers must deal with closer to home.
An adaptation of David Chariandy’s award-winning 2017 novel, Brother tells the story of two brothers coming of age in their Scarborough community in the 1990s. Frequently jumping back and forth in time, the story unfolds over three distinct periods in the young men’s lives. The sons of Jamaican immigrants, a change from the book where they are of Trinidadian heritage, the young boys were often left on their own together at night while their mother, Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake), went to work. Despite receiving explicit instructions to stay inside with the door locked, the rambunctious duo ventured out to explore the harsh realities of their community.
Of course, they did not need to explore the darkness of night to know the terrors that lurked within it. The nightly news made sure to ingrain a fear of their environment in their minds by showing Black faces only when reporting news of crimes. This sense of being trapped in a perilous cage with predators circling only intensified as they grew into teenagers. Not only did they need to be weary of volatile young men itching to start fights, but they also endured frequent harassment from the police, and were failed by an education system that systematically streamlined Black students into non-academic subjects. Complicating things further is the fact that Michael lacked the physical presence and overall confidence that made Francis so popular at school.
Seemingly the beacon of masculinity and coolness, the self-assured demeanour that Francis has worn as a mask for years began to show cracks. When the pressure cooker that is life in Scarborough could no longer contain the steam building within, Francis made a decision that will forever change the family dynamic. Ten years later, with his brother gone, Michael is left to assume the role of man of the house and navigate how to care for their mother who has been incapacitated by grief.
The unbearable weight of grief hovers over Brother like a cloud refusing to let the sun in. Thanks in part to the skilful way that Virgo navigates time, the tragedy that occurs feels even more devastating since one understands the events leading up to it and the fallout afterwards. This provides power and nuanced layers to the film, one where memory vividly keep the past in the forefront, while simultaneously blocking individuals from seeing any path to move forward.
This sense of being stuck in an infinite loop with no clear way to advance is perfectly captured in the way Virgo juxtaposes several sequences in the film. For example, when Ruth kisses her kids’ goodbye before going to work, one understands the sense of love and hope she conveys. Like many immigrants in her community, she puts in long hours to provide a better future for her kids. However, when an older Michael kisses his mom before going to work, it is not an image of optimism but rather defeat. As a frustrated Francis states in a powerful scene, “We are dreaming with no way forward, no way out.”
This juxtaposition between the dreams of immigrant parents and their offspring, and the tragic realities that stifle such desires, frequently flows throughout the film. It adds a rich texture to the community in which the story takes place. While the version of Scarborough that Virgo presents is plagued with plenty of poverty, over-policing, and trauma, it is one of hope as well. In one heartfelt sequence, Ruth takes her young boys to the Rouge River for a picnic. The scene is a reminder that, despite its problems, Scarborough is filled with a beauty, both in nature and in its people, that is rarely captured in the media portrayals of the region.
Cinematographer Guy Godfree clearly understands this beauty and does a wonderful job of showcasing it on screen. Godfree’s lens presents Scarborough in a way that is both poetic and gritty. The visuals not only bring the community vividly to life, but further accentuates the wonderful performances that anchor the film.
While the entire ensemble, which also features Kiana Madeira and Lovell Adams-Gray in key supporting roles, is fantastic, Johnson and Pierre truly raise the bar. Johnson is believable as the younger brother whose lack of experience is visible on his face for the whole world to see. He conveys Michael’s awkwardness by making himself seem small in the presence of Pierre’s Francis, while never seeming grand enough when his brother is absent.
For his part, Pierre is brilliant as the physically imposing older brother who is far more emotionally vulnerable than his exterior lets on. Giving one of the year’s best performances, he effortlessly moves back and forth from protective to despondent to tender with heart-wrenching beauty, which makes the character far more complex than others give him credit for. Thanks to Johnson and Pierre’s brilliant performances, Virgo’s film explores themes of identity, masculinity, sexuality, and grief in ways that always feel authentic.
An emotionally resonant film that presents Scarborough in a poetically beautiful and gritty light unlike it has ever been captured on screen before, Brother is a marvel to behold.