Brother is a Well-acted but Overwrought Account of 1990s Scarborough
Clement Virgo’s Scarborough love letter has all the components of a powerful, heartbreaking drama but is so excessive in length that its genuinely affecting moments become too attenuated.
Brother’s fraternal drama is markedly unhurried, taking its time to examine the complexities and intricacies of Scarborough life in the Hip-Hop 90s, and what its violent reality means for the hopes and dreams of the West Indian community who call it home. It ruminates within this vibrant hotbed, touching on the ramifications of familial and social expectations on an existence already reeling from oppression and loss, patiently plodding towards its ultimate moment of healing. Yet, this vision of a Toronto so familiar, but rarely showcased never earns its runtime. Transforming into a slow, almost painful crawl towards a destination too easily decipherable— and made more muted because of it.
Clement Virgo’s intimate, heartbreaking account of an immigrant family destined for tragedy overstays its welcome by one act too many. Coalescing in a visually bold, superbly acted slow build that never quite comes together on a narrative level, failing to be much more than a Canadian version of Moonlight— though never obtaining the level of poeticism and nuance that modern classic possessed.
Opening with the bracing whir of electrical towers and the innate, protective bond of two close-knit brothers, Virgo constructs a dichotomous Scarborough. One part, a radiant, nostalgic past, and the other a grey, rain-drenched present reeling from the former’s broken promise. Virgo’s screenplay, adapted from David Chariandy’s novel of the same name, frequently intercuts between three timelines, sharing a glimpse into the fraternal duo’s childhood and bleak adulthood, with greater emphasis on the adolescence that changed everything.
This storytelling method, while conceptually promising, does little besides contribute to the bloat, hindering the film’s forward momentum, often cutting forwards or backwards when it should be focusing on the moment at hand. If Virgo assumed a more linear approach, with the past trauma powerfully implied or suggested, Brother would have been a much more focused, quietly powerful experience.
In the absence of their father, Michael (Lamar Johnson) has always been protected and mentored by his slightly older brother, Francis (Aaron Pierre). Teaching him to stand up and carve out an identity in the face of detractors. While in the prominent, respected shadows of his brother, Michael both reveres and loves him, gaining the courage to pursue a meaningful romance and ultimately persevere in this cutthroat community. It’s a fraternal connection that couldn’t hope to last in this oppressive, unfeeling environment. As ten years later, Francis is nowhere to be found and Michael, emotionally adrift, struggles to take care of his mother (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who is paralyzed by grief.
This somber coming-of-age frame is not only used to shed light on the Scarborough experience— its cultural vivacity and the resilience of its Caribbean denizens— but also, its propensity to trap minorities into a pre-determined path that stifles self-expression. In challenging these systemic labels Michael and, especially, Francis find themselves ostracised by the neighbourhood and their mother, caught between expectation and passion. Virgo poignantly captures how such pressures suffocate and, ultimately, destroy families, especially when they’re underscored by the unending echo of blaring sirens and gunshots.
Such harsh realities are vividly captured by Johnson and Pierre’s lived-in, wholly authentic performances. Both impactful and nuanced, they work off each other seamlessly. With the fleeting happiness and enveloping pressure to conform personified by their emotive yet realistic inflections. Pierre’s turn is star-making, especially in the scenes where Francis pursues his love of music in the hopes of cementing an identity separate from his insulated borough. His growing disillusionment with achieving that dream is powerfully realized by his stoic, melancholic presence.
While the orchestral score is overly familiar, too iterative of Nicholas Britell’s work in Moonlight, the sprawling cinematography more than makes up for it. While graceful in its stillness, it impressively never relinquishes a sweeping lens. Virgo and cinematographer, Guy Godfree, render the urban expanse of Scarborough both immensely beautiful and wistful— the perfect stage for a gentle epic.
Yet, for all Brother does well, it’s not enough to shoulder the overwrought and overstuffed storytelling, which significantly falters in the back half— losing steam well before its conclusion. The film’s treatise on racially imposed suffering enters a repetitive lull, lingering on the same moments of tragedy and trauma until its commentary becomes painfully unsubtle. The final act positions the characters as mere figureheads of the immigrant experience, rather than their own, fleshed-out individuals.
Moreover, Virgo’s character writing, which is significantly propped up by stellar performances, also falters when it comes to Kiara Madeira’s Aisha. Who, despite her wishes to make a more immediate impact, never becomes anything more than a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, primarily relegated to being Michael’s love interest and nothing else. The performances do an enormous amount of heavy lifting and are the sole reason why the finale manages to pack an emotional wallop, despite it being easy to anticipate.
Brother has all the components of a powerful, heartbreaking drama but is so overwrought and excessive in length that its genuinely affecting moments become too attenuated. As a result, it’s easy to envision one’s attention wavering even during the most tragic of sequences. Making it truly hard not to wonder how much more resonant the film would have been if paced or plotted better. Hopefully, there’s a shorter, more linear producer edit somewhere.
– Prabhjot Bains