The sons of a Caribbean immigrant struggle to find belonging and a future while growing up poor on the outskirts of Toronto. Brother is a searingly honest exploration of lives on the edge of uncertainty. The bonds that hold a family together are severely tested as tragedy rattles a strong foundation. Brother, adapted from the award-winning novel by David Chariandy, breathes depth and nuance into absorbing characters. Their love for each other resonates as outside forces pull them apart in a heartbreaking narrative.
Brother takes place in three interwoven timelines over twenty years. We first meet the shy Michael (Lamar Johnson) and his handsome, outgoing older brother Francis (Aaron Pierre), at the base of an electrical tower in early 90s Scarborough, Ontario. Francis beckons a frightened Michael to climb with him to the top. The attempted ascent defines their personalities as the film jumps back and forth to frame their upbringing.
Young Francis (Jacob Williams) looks after Michael (Sebastian Nigel Singh) in their apartment as mother hurriedly prepares to leave. Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake), a Jamaican caregiver, raises the children alone after her husband abandoned the family. She races to catch the bus outside the projects. All the immigrant women line up to start the day looking after wealthy Canadians. The brothers listen to music and hang out with Aisha (Delia Lisette Chambers), the daughter of a neighbor.
Michael’s Difficult Reunion with Aisha
Years later in their rough and tumble high school, Michael is bullied by other teens in a gang. They back down when they realize he’s Francis’ brother. His name carries respect and allows Michael a wide swath. He keeps schoolwork as a priority but sets an amorous eye towards the beautiful Aisha (Kiana Madeira). Michael’s attempt to impress her with his intellect backfires spectacularly.
In the present, a grown Michael gets ready for work. Ruth has not left her room in ages. She is a shell of her former self. Michael does his best to prepare food. He constantly worries about his mother. The apartment is cold and empty like a tomb. Michael sees an old friend in the courtyard. Aisha has returned for a brief visit. Her presence brings a rare smile to Michael’s forlorn countenance. She wonders if Ruth is doing any better. A hardened Michael promises her they’ll reconnect soon. His unspoken loss widens the gulf between them.
Brother reveals in the first act that Francis is no longer in the picture. The bright light that radiated warmth has long vanished. The film fills in the gaps regarding Francis’ disappearance through flashbacks. He is depicted as the center of the universe. Michael idolized everything about him. He was tall, muscular, and popular while the smaller and reserved Michael stayed in his shadow. But Francis never leaves his brother behind or makes him feel unwelcome. It was them against the world always. Francis’ indomitable spirit gave Michael the confidence to try harder. This is especially important in his teenage pursuit of Aisha.
Writer/director Clement Virgo (Love Come Down, Lie With Me) uses the harsh environment to develop his storyline and elucidate key relationships. The brothers are first generation Canadians living in government housing. Their neighborhood is overrun with gangs and violent crime. Law enforcement views Black youth as problematic hoodlums. Francis and Michael must show their neighborhood allegiance. They have to pick sides or risk getting robbed.
A Staggering Climax
Francis puts all of his creative energy into writing music. He wants to be a DJ and a rapper. It’s his escape from gritty surroundings. But he’s not afraid to throw a punch or start a fight. Francis demands respect. He values himself and won’t be denigrated. This fierce courage is both a weapon and flaw. Francis refuses to know his place. His forthright nature is greatly admired by Michael and his mother. They see Francis as having the talent and drive to escape poverty.
The adult Michael has lost the hope that Francis inspired. Whatever dreams he thought possible have come crashing down. The brutal reality of life in the ghetto has swallowed him whole. The spark of joy cradled between his mother and Francis vanishes. He becomes myopic about attaining future happiness. His mother’s well-being is the only concern. Aisha serves as a reminder of what is still possible. She can lift him out of darkness if he’s willing to move on. That’s a tough ask when his pain and suffering continues to linger.
Brother addresses troubling themes with a frank and sincere approach. Virgo never sensationalizes. He clearly depicts how Michael and Francis are viewed as outsiders. They’re poor, young, and Black; easy targets for societal racism. The troubling climax, where Francis’ fate is at last known, hits like a freight train. You’re left reeling from a staggering blow.
Brother is a production of Hawkeye Pictures and Conquering Lion Pictures. It is currently in limited theatrical release and available on demand from Vertical.