Editor’s note: Scott’s review originally ran during last year’s Berlinale Film Festival, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens today in limited theatrical release.
With its social pressures and troubled definitions of manhood backed into a corner, Sally El Hosaini‘s My Brother the Devil gropes toward acceptance with two characters seeking to define or redefine who they are and how they see themselves. Like most things, the difficulty often lies in how others see them. It’s an hebetic flick where religion, sexuality and socio-economic status all collide to muddy the waters of the East End.
That’s where Rashid (James Floyd) and his little brother Mo (Fady Elsayed) live with a mother who is obliviously sweet and a father who is only present long enough to berate them. Rashid is a drug dealer popular with the neighborhood and with his boys. Mo idolizes him, but Rashid is pushing him away from the crib and into the classroom. Good grades aside, there are no easy paths in this movie. After knives get bloodied on a shitty street in London, Rashid begins questioning his chosen profession and seeks a real job and friendship with professional photographer Sayyid (the always strong Saïd Taghmaoui). As that relationship evolves into something more identity-challenging, Mo finds himself without the God of his Big Brother and is left to fall into his footsteps.
This complicated movie’s best work comes from the scenes between Rashid (who goes by Rash for a reason) and Mo (a whining puppy dog desperate for acknowledgement). It’s an earnest portrayal of brothers with a few years and a lot of world experience between them. Mo romanticizes everything his brother does, creating his own brand of religion and ethics. It’s the common story of the weakly impressionable seeking to fill a void with the language of the streets, but it’s told here in an uncommon way. It’s the small efforts between Rash and Mo that truly stand out – a quick cruelty or a kindness wrapped in aggression. When Rash sneaks a twenty pound note into his mother’s purse, it’s less about the act and more about how it’s seen and understood by Mo. There’s chemistry there that speaks to the talent of the two leads and makes the scenes where Mo is all alone compel with frustrating sincerity.
Here is a child who has lost his religion, and the only ways he knows to fix that are to play by the gang rules his brother displayed. Rash’s “Do As I Say, Not As I Do” style doesn’t make much of an impact. The respect he gets in the drug game, on the other hand, sells itself.
The story – especially the physically close bro-flirtation between Rash and his best friend – doesn’t hide the fact that Rash is sexually conflicted, but it also wisely doesn’t shove it stark naked into the street. It’s handled with a purity that runs counter to how angrily instant Mo responds to discovering his tough big brother in the bed of man. In his eyes, this is a betrayal, and it’s one more fuse lit by a plot that brims with Shakespearean levels of deceit and consequence.
Fortunately, this isn’t a plodding story of self-discovery or contemplative distance. Hosaini has worked a wonder here by combining difficult subject matter and an environment that uses guns to do the talking. A murderous rival and an abandoned gang both bring the specter of violence to what would have been an impossible situation to begin with. This is the immoveable force and the unstoppable object colliding, and it’s handled with the ballet dancer’s wealth of grace and strength. Amidst the hope, death is still waiting around a concrete corner.
There is some drag to story – namely an overabundance of scenes between Mo and two friends he makes (one, a chubby white kid who dumbly believes that gang life is awesome and the other, a young girl new to the neighborhood who represents the possibility for Mo to change). The scenes are worthwhile because of the acting, but they shift the focus a bit too much and it takes Mo a bit too long to end up in the drug den, taking the leap everyone always knew he would take.
It also has a wholly unsatisfying conclusion. With as out-of-breath and fascinating as the rest of the story is, the ending is a sort of jerky, start-and-stop moment disguised as calm when it could have been far more engaging. Perhaps that’s the point though. Nothing is easy. Nothing can clean the blood from the streets. Hosaini and company have created the anti-sitcom here. The world doesn’t change because you do, and learning a lesson hardly means anything. The best intentions can still have disastrous outcomes.
These criticisms do little to break down the stirring positives on display here. If anything, it shows that the movie is great, but not a masterpiece. Not a bad distinction for a first feature from an incredibly promising new storyteller. My Brother the Devil is one of those surprising examples of a piece of art where the natural talent of all involves makes up for a lack of experience. It’s the concept of manhood dragged through the gravel of the streets and shoved into a tutu. Shot to reflect that tone, everything about its creation mixes and challenges gender and social roles with a nuance and subtlety that’s refreshing. All in all, it’s a robust debut that demands anticipation for Hosaini’s next work.