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Review: Brother

March 18, 2023

John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Brother, the Scarborough-set drama from writer-director Clement Virgo that is up for fourteen Canadian Screen Awards, follows two brothers, Francis (Aaron Pierre) and Michael (Lamar Johnson), over the course of more than a decade.

Much of the film takes place in the 1990s, with the Jamaican-Canadian brothers living in a small apartment in the Kingston-Galloway area of Scarborough with their single mother Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who is struggling to make ends meet as a nurse to support them.

Opening with Francis leading the way as the brothers attempt to climb a hydro tower to see the view of Toronto from up high (a scene that we return to throughout the film), the story unfolds across two main timelines. In the earlier timeline, we see how Francis serves as mentor to younger brother Michael.

But we discover early on that, in the later timeline, Francis has died, leaving Michael without a protector and their mother distraught with grief. Through this mix of flashbacks and flash-forwards, the film takes place before and after Francis’s death. This fractured narrative approach allows Virgo to very effectively explore the before and after of a tragedy, showing how it fundamentally changes Michael and the crucial impact that it has on their mother and the rest of the community, as the filmmaker confidently jumps back and forth in time in a way that feels guided by emotion.

As much as this is a film about the bond between two brothers, it’s also a portrait of a grieving mother trying to reconcile the loss of her son, with some initial mystery around how he died. We always know that the story is barreling towards tragedy, but by telling it out of order, Virgo allows for rises and falls in emotion, offering a richly textured tapestry of moments in their lives that all swirl together. Despite the disjointed storytelling, it is easy to intuit where we are at different points in the story.

Similar to the film Scarborough from last year, this is a portrait of inner-city poverty and despair, but also one that allows for little glimmers of light. In adapting David Chariandy’s novel for the screen, Virgo has crafted an absorbing family saga, one that is guided by solid performances from its small ensemble of leads. The film is equally defined by its strong sense of setting, showcasing this long-neglected corner of Toronto that I’m glad is finally starting to be shown more on screen.

Brother is now playing in limited release, including at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

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