Two Jamaican-Canadian brothers hailing from Scarborough, a neighborhood in Toronto, look up at a soaring transmission tower. The older sibling Francis (Aaron Pierre, “The Underground Railroad”) explains to his younger brother Michael (Lamar Johnson, “The Hate U Give”) that the higher you climb, the more the reverberations of the electricity buzz and shake you. If you make one false move, it can instantly fry you. But they can make it to the top for the area’s best view if Michael follows Francis’ every motion. These inseparable siblings could not be more different; Francis is handsome, broad, and undaunted. Michael is hesitant and tiny. Nevertheless, the pair implicitly trust each other. And they begin, step-by-step, climbing the tower that will become a metaphor for their lives.
Fast forward ten years, and Michael isn’t a wide-eyed teen anymore. He meets an old friend from the neighborhood, Aisha (Kiana Madeira, “Fear Street”), who’s returned to stay with Michael and his quiet and confused mother (a stunning Marsha Stephanie Blake, “I’m Your Woman”). For reasons that are initially unclear, Francis is gone. His departure left a hole in the people who knew him. And they must find some way to process the loss that still hangs over them like those buzzing power lines.
Veteran Canadian director Clement Virgo’s “Brother,” adapted from David Chariandy’s same-titled novel, is a movie about memory and grief, stasis and regret, told in whispered tones and with longing poeticism.
“Brother” covers a span of about twenty years. We see Francis and Michael as children consuming nightly news that warns them about a couple of local killers on the loose; this update leaves Francis with a buried fear that reappears in adulthood in ways he cannot predict.
Ten years later, in 1991, the brothers are high schoolers. The popular and brawny Francis—a music lover who harbors dreams of being a famous MC like Dr. Dre—often protects the quiet Michael from local bullies. Despite his best efforts, however, Francis can’t totally shield his younger sibling from the encroaching gang violence and the predatory police who stalk them every night. Day by day, that pressure wears on the hulking shoulders that hide Francis’s tender heart. Michael, on the other hand, crushes on Aisha, a Portuguese-Jamaican teen who offers the shy kid some solace away from the arresting tumult.
In the question surrounding Francis’ fate, the film gathers tension like thunder on the edge of a storm. The evocative score by Todor Kobakov (“Born to Be Blue”) crosses fingers with the lyrical folding of these siblings’ lives, from childhood through post-tragedy, bathed in warm, radiant tones, visually and sonically explaining how grief reverberates like moss growing on your heart. The organicness of the music makes “Brother” the spiritual cousin to Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Both films center on families frozen by the loss of a bright, undaunted loved one, and both show the joy and pain experienced by those left behind in plaintive, beautiful ways.
Every inch of “Brother” is lived in because of Virgo’s attention to detail. We explore and take in Scarborough—from the chilly, vicious streets to the natural shelters found in the transmission fields and down by the lively stream—to the point that we know the area like a close friend. The complicated space these characters occupy—a neighborhood rich in Caribbean spirit, culture, and community but overburdened by the threats that await these first-generation Canadians—articulates the feeling of inescapability felt by every character.
See, Virgo is too smart a filmmaker to tell these characters’ stories in blunt terms. Instead, he covers the loss of identity, childhood fears, the unbending toll of racism, and a desire for home and kin with subtle, powerful visual phrasing by DP Guy Godfree. “Brother” moves at an unhurried pace, which can admittedly slow to a crawl. But the ability to thoughtfully swim the memories shared by Francis and Michael—the search for their absent father and the rapid crumbling of their mother after Francis’ disappearance—is worth the added runtime.
It’s difficult to single out a lone performance in “Brother” because this is probably the best ensemble work you’ll see all year. Johnson’s transformation from a timid teen to a crumpled-up, bitter adult is potent. Madeira is charming and casually brilliant as the sole remaining glimmer in this friend group. Blake gathers up a performance whose range—from exuberance to defiance, lost and confused, and utterly shattered—serves as the linchpin for the many aches piled upon immigrants by a land they thought would be better. And Pierre, an actor who first impressed in “The Underground Railroad” as Caesar, gives a turn here that fully introduces the scary talent within him. Every movement contains about three different layers of feelings, of hurts and dreams. How can a seemingly invincible man be so frightened that he precipitates his own downfall? Pierre charts that difficult path with uncanny ease. He is the misunderstood Francis. He is every scared Black kid who uses costumes of masculinity to shield him from the unforgiving world.
All of these performances—especially the actors’ physical translation of the years and fears they’ve endured and the weight they’ve carried as Black men and women in a hostile neighborhood—are so tangible and familiar that they’re never forgotten. There are unforgettable moments when you just want to embrace everyone on screen, if only so you’ll know everything will be alright. By the time of film concludes—ripping your heart out with a gorgeous montage that caresses the bodies and aspirations of these Black folks with graceful eyes, set to the hypnotic notes of Nina Simone’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas”—Virgo’s “Brother” leaves you spellbound and grateful. Grateful for a filmmaker who cares deeply about the interior lives of Black people. And the light that shines within them. [A]