There’s a lot to admire in Clement Virgo’s directorial, Brother (2023). This is a film whose lens is refracted through memory. It is looking back over a ten-year span, but Kye Meechan’s editing makes the temporal leaps a seamless melange of moments bouncing off each other. The accumulated trauma and the bottled-up loss reverberate through the past into the present. The location remains the same, Scarborough, through the nineties into the 2000s. Racial violence and prejudice aren’t just undercurrents to the narrative; they are definitive and permeate the worldview of the two Black brothers, Michael (Lamar Johnson) and Francis (Aaron Pierre), whose trajectories we follow.
The brothers live with their single mother, Ruth (an astonishing, devastating Marsha Stephanie Blake). She does not speak about her past or their father. The brothers can tell she has been through a lot. The unspoken rule is to not talk about how they immigrated to Canada or about their father. So, the repression of scars and not openly articulating hurt and pain is inadvertently set as a household practice. For most of their childhood years, Ruth isn’t able to be around.
She sees the kids in the morning and is away at work thereafter, doing overtime incessantly to keep the house running. The brothers are pretty much on their own. Francis, the elder one, is a pillar of support for his mother, who entrusts him with guiding Michael. Michael is the more passive and quieter of the two, careful and cautious in not ruffling things. He is the kind of person who would be subjugated by anyone who projects more authority.
On the other hand, Francis carries a forceful presence, is popular with girls at school, and is the sort of guy who can charm you by quoting the coolest lyrics. He drops out of school that’d have foisted the usual carpenter’s gig on him and leaves home to pursue his interests in music production. It almost crushes Ruth, who looked at him as the most dependable. After his departure, she sinks into a deep sadness while remaining hopeful that he will soon scurry back home.
In his adaptation of the eponymous 2017 David Chariandy novel, Virgo shows the ruptures in the mother’s and her sons’ lives with minimal drama. The central event that shatters their lives comes through only towards the film’s final section. There is but one big breakdown of Ruth’s, where Blake’s performance evokes the enormous hollowing grief that has nearly defined her life. There is no backstory to Ruth as such. She had long chucked it in making a brave, fresh start with her sons.
But Blake builds a moving portrait of a woman who struggles to move beyond grief and trauma only to find herself getting wrapped within it. It does not help that Michael believes that he must not gently nudge his mother into a conversation about their profound loss. He leads a mechanical existence with his mother, detached from any emotional life. When Aisha (Kiana Madeira), whom he knew from his childhood and was in a relationship with years ago, returns after years to Scarborough, she suggests holding a get-together in Michael’s apartment for reminiscing and possible healing.
He immediately rejects the proposal, insisting his mother cannot bear such disturbances. His sincere but misjudged notion of stability has only made his relationship with his mother muted and in complete denial. Neither party has accepted what has transpired and talks about the losses that ripped their lives apart. Ten years on, they are still spiraling, grappling with the shadow.
Virgo etches the troubled environment surrounding the family, especially brilliantly when seen from the kids’ eyes. As they watch in dread the news about black men robbing banks, they sense the sharp violence of community clashes and gang wars erupting on the streets. It is all around them. Ruth is concerned that her sons, especially the outgoing Francis, might get absorbed into the cesspool of violence and crime.
Therefore, she ensures Michael keeps tailing Francis as much as possible as a sort of check. While Michael distances himself from the implications of the racialized unrest, Francis plunges into the messiest situations, taking them head-on. Johnson and Pierre nicely complement each other. Under Virgo’s sensitive, compassionate direction, bolstered by Todor Kobakov’s greatly affecting music that practically binds the film together, Brother shines with empathy and well-earned emotion.