brother review

Brother review | Clement Virgo’s debut is assured and powerful

Director Clement Virgo examines the many shades of masculinity in this tender coming-of-age film. Read our full Brother review. 

Clement Virgo’s debut film about two brothers growing up in the neighbourhood of Scarborough in Toronto is an understated affair for the most part. 

At the centre of Brother are Michael (The Last of Us’ Lamar Johnson) and Francis (Aaron Pierre). The two brothers couldn’t be more different; Michael is awkward and reserved, while Francis towers over everybody, both physically and in spirit. But they share that intricate, powerful bond that brothers do. 

The film begins with Francis encouraging Michael to follow him in climbing an electric tower. Francis sternly guides his brother to follow his every move, or he will be electrocuted but promises the view from the top is worth the difficult ascend. The scene not only bookends the film but also acts as an adequate metaphor for Michael and Francis’ lives. It’s a striking opening, immediately announcing Brother as a compelling tale with a tight focus on the two men and their paths in life. 

brother aaron pierre lamar johnson

Credit: Curzon

Most of Brother is set in 1991, as Francis is craving his independence and wants to abandon school in order to launch a career as a music producer. Michael carefully observes his brother from his shadow. Often, the story jumps to 2001, and Francis is gone. The brothers’ mother (Marsha Stephanie Blake) is a shell of her former self, and Michael is both angry and even more guarded than he was before. 

Occasionally, we’re also privy to the brothers’ childhood as they’re left on their own after their mother leaves for work at night. They blatantly break her rule of no TV after 8pm and spy a news report of two Black men robbing a store and shooting the cashier. The blurry, grainy security footage leaves a lasting impact on both boys, who later find themselves growing up against different ideals of masculinity

The mystery of what happened to Francis is what powers the plot of Brother. Did he leave on bad terms? Is he dead? It becomes more and more likely that something bad happened as we witness guns being brought to the neighbourhood and the police getting more and more aggressive with the immigrant population. The most tragic aspect of Brother is just how timely it still feels in 2023 despite being set over 30 years in the past. 

At 2 hours, the film is hopelessly bloated. Virgo’s film struggles to maintain any kind of urgency or narrative tension; the big reveal at the end feels predictable and inevitable. But what keeps Brother going is the immeasurable talent in front of the screen. Everyone here is magnetic and watchable, and I found myself more invested in the performances than the story itself. 

Aaron Pierre is a compelling concoction of warmth and physical power as Francis. His story is perhaps more interesting than Michael, who is our way into the story. Johnson, who was equally devastating in his episode of The Last of Us, is powerful and beautifully communicates Michael’s state of mind with the smallest of gestures. 

But it’s Marsha Stephanie Blake who steals the show as the mother of the two men. Ruth is the heart and soul of the Brother, and Blake’s vulnerability is a marvel. She goes from a headstrong mother who leaves dinner on the table for her kids while she heads off to yet another night shift to being overworked and over-worried as her kids are being brought home in the back of a cop car after witnessing a fatal shooting and ultimately, completely broken after years of hardship. 

Despite occasionally stumbling, especially in its pacing and runtime, Brother is an assured debut for Virgo. Guy Godfree’s clean, gimmick-free framing gives the film clarity. Todor Kobakov’s score is used sparingly but to great effect. Virgo is clever enough to let his actors do the heavy lifting and to simply let the camera observe them. 

Brother reveals itself to be unexpectedly tragic in more ways than one. While some of its narrative threads feel overly familiar, the end result resembles a knitted blanket: warm, comfortable and thoroughly connected. What Brother lacks in singularity, it more than makes up for in its soul and spirit. 

Brother is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema 15 September. 

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