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film review

Michael (Lamar Johnson, left) and Francis (Aaron Pierre) are brothers who immigrated to Canada in the 1990s and are fiercely protective of each other.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

  • Brother
  • Directed by Clement Virgo
  • Written by Clement Virgo, based on the novel by David Chariandy
  • Starring Lamar Johnson, Aaron Pierre and Marsha Stephanie Blake
  • Classification N/A; 119 minutes
  • Opens in theatres March 17

Critic’s Pick

Throughout the remarkable, beautiful new Canadian drama Brother, writer-director Clement Virgo returns to a scene in which teenage siblings Francis (Aaron Pierre) and Michael (Lamar Johnson) climb a hydro tower in the unfairly maligned Toronto neighbourhood of Scarborough.

The moment, as nerve-wracking in its moment-to-moment tension as it is gorgeous in its exacting composition, acts as a kind of symbolic dare for the boys that serves as the through-line for the film. The safe, comfortable roots of Scarborough are at their feet, while the riskier possibilities of the wider world await at the top. Reach high enough, and you can escape – but with one false step, you can lose everything.

Adapted from David Chariandy’s award-winning 2017 novel of the same name, Virgo’s film is a special work to be cherished and pored over for generations to come – an instantly essential addition to the Toronto cinema canon. In more than a few ways, Brother arrives as the follow-up question to the query that Virgo first asked almost three decades ago, when his debut feature film Rude wondered what we talk about when we talk about the inner lives of Black Canadians. The journey from the Regent Park of Rude to the Scarborough of Brother isn’t quite a straight line, but a series of thoughtful, knotty detours that paint a portrait of a city, a community, a cinema.

Construction of the story pivots on purposeful pauses and gaps.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

A deceptively simple story unfurled and then woven back into three separate timelines, Brother follows the lives of the charismatic, swaggering Francis and the hopelessly sensitive and meek Michael, two siblings who are as attached to one another as they are temperamentally opposed. The two lean on each other throughout their lonely childhood and then frenetic teenage years, with their loving but strict Jamaican immigrant mother Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake) often out of the house, working as a nurse to provide her sons a better future than she ever could have imagined back home.

Francis has dreams of becoming a music-world star, with the stage presence and entourage of friends and admirers to match. But as he strives to escape the confines of his neighbourhood – the walls of his mother’s housing-complex apartment practically crush his hulking form – Francis starts to slip into fits of frustration, despondency, anger. Meanwhile, Michael can only watch his brother flail, unsure of just what he can do to help. Aside from the constant respect and companionship of Francis, Michael is entirely unsure what he wants out of his life. Even the attention and, eventually, affections, of his neighbour Aisha (Kiana Madeira) only seem to temporarily, haltingly fulfill Michael.

Things come to a head one sweltering night in 1991, a climax that might be predictable but is given severe emotional weight by Virgo’s fluid approach to time and memory. This is a story whose construction pivots on purposeful pauses and gaps, as if recalled through the hazy mist of a late-summer dream.

The spirit of what Scarborough represents is present in every frame.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

There is one big change from Chariandy’s novel that feels necessary. In the book, Francis and Michael are Trinidadian immigrants, like the author himself. But given Virgo’s Jamaican heritage, it makes perfect sense to recalibrate the story to achieve a level of intensely personal connection.

Another tweak, that is more an unfortunate byproduct of production circumstances: While there are certain scenes filmed in Scarborough itself – including a sun-dappled picnic sequence shot in Rouge Valley that feels ripped from a childhood fantasy too perfect to be true – much of the film’s central housing complex location was captured around Toronto’s Bathurst and Lawrence area.

Yet the spirit of what Scarborough represents – for Chariandy, and for Clement – is undoubtedly present in every lovingly composed frame of Brother. Like Francis and Michael’s hydro-tower climb, Brother offers a view of disenfranchisement from ground-level, and from the very top.

Johnson, the Scarborough native, is compelling and well-cast.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Anchoring all of the film’s beauty, meanwhile, is a truly breakout performance by Johnson, a Scarborough native himself. Before the young star is inevitably lured to Hollywood forever – the actor just killed on a recent episode of HBO’s zombie phenomenon The Last of Us – every Canadian director should be trying to throw their very best scripts at him.

Johnson is so compelling and well-cast that, regrettably, the British Pierre cannot help but feel out of place half the time. While the 28-year-old actor (best known for Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad series) possesses a fiery charisma that toggles easily between sweet and slick, he just seems too mature – too gigantic a presence, really – to believably play a high-schooler.

Then again, this could be an intentional move, to further underline the film’s remembrance games. Do things live larger in the past then the present? Was that hydro tower really so tall to seem like a death trap, or did we never climb higher than an inch off the ground? Brother doesn’t pretend to offer an answer, only a memory that you’ll carry for a long, long time.