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TIFF Film Review: Clement Virgo’s ‘Brother’ Is a Soul-Stirring Testament to Love and Loss

There’s no denying that recurring negative portrayals of Black people in Western media have had lasting impacts on society. And for those within Black communities, the stereotypes are sometimes reinforced through systemic discrimination and an atmosphere of violence-related terror. In Clement Virgo’s stirring new film Brother, a Black immigrant family attempts to rise above expectations, charting their own paths and creating role models within their family unit.

For high schooler Michael (Lamar Johnson), that primary role model is his older brother Francis (Aaron Pierre). Confident, strong and well-respected within their rough and tumble neighborhood of Scarborough in Canada, Francis acts as Michael’s protector and surrogate father. Still, Michael lives in fear of the violence he sees on the news and in his own daily life. Much of that fear is also shared by his mother Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake), a hard-working woman from Jamaica who is determined to raise her sons the right way in her newly adopted homeland. But despite Ruth’s boundless affection and stern guidance, their harsh environment will come to threaten their oasis of love in devastating ways.

Based on David Chariandy’s novel of the same name, Brother is a cinematic rendering that is deeply felt. Decades after perhaps his most well-known work as a director on the acclaimed TV drama The Wire, Virgo finds himself in comfortable territory in this similarly gritty milieu. And once again, it’s the characters that will resonate with audiences.

The most immediately captivating of these characters is Francis, played with an effortlessly magnetic swagger by Aaron Pierre. As he makes his way through the world, it’s easy to see why family, friends and strangers alike are drawn to him. And more importantly, we sympathize with the sorrow of his absence.

Indeed, the pain of losing Francis almost threatens to swallow the film whole. In the domestic scenes of the present day, Francis metaphorically haunts his family home with a heaviness that sometimes feels too constricting for both the film and the characters. In particular, Ruth is virtually paralyzed by grief.

Fortunately, the film’s nonlinear narrative structure adds necessary emotional balance, as intermittent flashbacks recount the events leading up to Francis’ departure. Furthermore, the elegiac score – reminiscent of Nicholas Britell’s compositions for Barry Jenkins – adds a touch of grace to the grim themes of unfulfilled dreams and systematic oppression. And each of the central actors contributes a ray of light in their unique ways, expressing the familiar communal spirit that often sustains immigrant communities.

Though the film may be named after its palpable brotherly bond, it’s ultimately Marsha Stephanie Blake’s Ruth who cuts to the heart and soul of the story. She embodies the sacrifice, love and selflessness of a proud mother to heartrending effect. Translating the essence of the lyrics to Brother’s closing song “Ne me quitte pas,” Blake and the overall film reminds us to hold our loved ones close.

SCORE: ★★★

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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