Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Movie Review: My Brother the Devil

My Brother the Devil
Directed by: Sally El Hosaini.
Written  by: Sally El Hosaini.
Starring: James Floyd (Rashid), Fady Elsayed (Mo), Saïd Taghmaoui (Sayyid), Aymen Hamdouchi (Repo), Ashley Thomas (Lenny), Anthony Welsh (Izzi), Arnold Oceng (Aj), Letitia Wright (Aisha), Amira Ghazalla (Hanan), Elarica Gallacher (Vanessa), Nasser Memarzia (Abdul-Aziz).

You’d be forgiven for assuming that Sally El Hosaini’s debut film My Brother the Devil is yet another story of warring brothers growing up in the slums. The basic plot outline – that younger brother Mo (Fady Elsayed) is smart, and has a bright future ahead of him, if only he can avoid the traps his brother Rashid (James Floyd), who has joined a gang and started dealing has fallen into – seems like it. You can guess, for example, that Mo idolizes his brother, and wants to be just like him, while Rashid wants an entirely different life for his brother than the one he leads – the life he thought he wanted, but after a brush with tragedy, realizes how meaningless this is. Other than the fact that this film is about English born songs of Egyptian immigrants, and set in Hackley, a housing project in England, this film could easily take place in L.A., with African American leads, right? After all, how many films have essentially copied the formulas set out by John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood and the Hughes Brothers Menace II Society in the two decades since those groundbreaking films were released?

Yet My Brother the Devil isn’t quite what we expect it to be. Right from the start, we notice the beautiful cinematography on display – this isn’t a movie interested in gritty, street level realism, but one that finds beauty in even the most unlikely of places. And as the movie moves along, My Brother the Devil starts tackling far more interesting questions than poverty, gangs and drugs – which we’ve seen before. Instead, My Brother the Devil starts addressing things like religion, sexuality and masculinity. The movie at times, runs the risk of turning into a sermon, but El Hosaini’s screenplay is too strong and too subtle for that. This film marks a very promising debut for a rising talent.

James Floyd is great as Rashid – who seems perfectly content being a little thug, running with his not-very-inventively named gang DMG (Drugs, Money, Guns) until two things happen. The first is that his best friend is killed in one of those stupid gang fights that where it seems more important to save face than to protect yourself – until something bad happens. And the second is that he meets Sayyid (Said Taghmaoui), a photographer of Algerian descent, who sees promise in Rashid, and offers him a job. Sayyid opens up a world of possibilities that Rashid didn’t know existed – in more ways than one. Mo, of course, reacts with confusion and anger at what he sees as Rashid’s betrayal – all Mo has ever wanted was to be part of DMG, and now his brother is turning his back on it – and by extension him.

There are other nice performances in the movie – Elsayed is good as Mo, but it’s a more simplistic role. I was really impressed with Letitia Wright as Aisha, a stricter Muslim than Rashid and Mo’s family, who nonetheless catches Mo’s eye. If he’s smart, and stick with her, he may find his own way out.

Yes, you can say that My Brother the Devil trades in more than its share of clichés. The whole idea of brothers fighting each other is one of the oldest in storytelling. And when the question of sexuality comes up – although they are interestingly handled – the conversion seems a little too quick and convenient to be fully believed. And yet My Brother the Devil remains an intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful film. Sometimes clichés are clichés because they work. And while El Hosiani uses those clichés, she is not a slave to them. This marks a promising debut film from a filmmaker to watch.

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