Brother: an astutely cast fraternal drama

Though baggy in parts, Clement Virgo’s challenging sixth feature, about a missing brother and the gap he leaves behind, is frequently beguiling.

Lamar Johnson and Aaron Pierre as Michael and Francis in Brother (2022)
  • Reviewed from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

The only Jamaican-Canadian kid in the east Toronto enclave of Scarborough whose record collection is expansive enough to include Jimmy Cliff, Talking Heads and Anne Murray, Francis is beautiful, sensitive, and musically inclined: sitting by the stereo thumbing through LP sleeves, he looks like he was born with headphones on. He is also, before we even meet him in either of the pre-teen or young adult incarnations he inhabits in Clement Virgo’s new feature Brother, already a memory to the people who loved him: a name, a face, and an ache.

The questions of what exactly happened to Francis, why, and how deeply it affected his doting younger brother Michael are left deliberately ambiguous by Brother’s ambitious, time-shifting structure. Working closely from second-generation Canadian author David Chariandy’s autobiographical novel, which unfolds in and around Scarborough in the late 1990s, Virgo shows an admirable willingness to disorient his audience, whether by withholding crucial bits of exposition or refusing to fully delineate between reminiscence and fantasy.

The result of this directorial strategising is a movie whose familiar (albeit locationally and culturally specific) coming-of-age tropes are suffused with a creeping, inexorable sense of dread. Brother’s pressurised lyricism recalls the stylised approach of Virgo’s groundbreaking 1995 debut Rude – still one of the most brazenly accomplished movies ever produced in Toronto.

What made Rude so remarkable was its colour-coded, graphic-novel brashness, and though Virgo’s style has mellowed away from that film’s Spike Lee-inspired aesthetic, he’s still playing with ways to charge everyday locations with controlled poetic flourishes. The apartment that Michael and Francis share with their mother Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake) is at once sparse and cavernous, a world unto itself, sunlight refracted by strips of tinfoil meant to deflect the summer heat away from the windows. When Ruth pulls all-nighters as a waitress, the boys brace the front door with a chair, and her knocking reverberates like a ship’s engine room; a television broadcast about a local convenience store robbery has the distorted quality of a horror movie, one blurry perpetrator staring defiantly through the surveillance camera and into the boys’ shared psychic space.

For the majority of Brother, Michael is played by Lamar Johnson, who’s got just the right mix of coiled wariness and humility for a character who exists in his older sibling’s shadow. And, as cast by the broad, hulking Aaron Pierre, so memorable in Barry Jenkins’ 2021 miniseries The Underground Railroad, Francis’s shadow is long indeed. The sweetly humorous flashback involving his record collection, discovered and rifled through by his and Michael’s apartment-block neighbour Aisha (Kiana Madeira), shows Virgo’s dexterous touch with masculine dynamics: without remotely trying to hit on the younger girl – and fully cognisant of Michael’s thermonuclear-level crush on her – Francis accidentally disrupts their courtship through force of pure charisma. Even when he gracefully makes a show of leaving the room to leave them to it, he isn’t quite gone.

Leaving is Francis’ lot in life: he never seems to belong at home, despite his best efforts, and eventually, he doesn’t try to. His sense of difference, delicately acted by Pierre, leads him to try to locate his absentee father and towards a clique of fellow would-be musicians operating out of a barbershop. It also creates a distance from Michael and the chronically exhausted Ruth, who can barely look after herself, much less two kids on the edge of adulthood. What Francis can’t get clear of is the gang culture that congregates in his neighbourhood; at once respectful and resentful of Francis’ strength, his more aggressive peers keep their distance while looking ready to strike. Trouble finds Francis despite his best efforts, some of it from the other side of Toronto’s thin blue line. The city’s shameful contemporary history of police brutality (a good deal of it without much in the way of consequences for the uniformed culprits) haunts the edges of Brother, and when the otherwise benign Aisha lobs a well-placed rock at a parked cop car, it could almost be on behalf of the movie around her.

The same unconventional storytelling tactics that challenge the viewer to find their bearings also draw attention to a certain draggy repetitiveness in the home stretch. But when it’s exploring and interweaving different sensations of absence – the rituals of separation between young men, as well as between parents and children and young lovers – Brother is beguiling.