Welsh-Egyptian writer-director Sally El Hosaini’s crackling debut feature, My Brother the Devil, slyly deceives us into believing it’s a familiar street-gang story of fraternal bonds destined to be broken by crime. But midway through this propulsive, stylishly shot drama set in an East London ‘hood, sexual awakening rears its head. That adds entirely fresh layers to the film’s exploration of codes of masculinity, cultural roots and environmental conditioning, and of the strength of character required to surmount all that and the hate and prejudice that comes with it.
Mo (Fady Elsayed) is a bright young student living with his traditional Egyptian family on a Hackney housing estate. While his older brother Rashid (James Floyd) still sleeps in the bunk bed below, occasionally sneaking in his girlfriend (Elarica Gallacher), he is a valued member of a small-time local gang. Their acronymic credo is DMG (Drugs, Money, Guns).
A handsome boxer who secretly slips money into his mother’s purse, Rash is idolized by Mo, who craves the cachet and cred that come with “road” work. But Rashid wants a different life for his little bro, saving his drug-deal earnings to put him through college. Mo’s persistence gets him assigned a minor drug delivery (“food” in the local slang). But he gets mugged by kids from a rival gang, losing the merchandise and his high-tops and making Rash more convinced to keep him away from crime.
El Hosaini is unafraid to cover formulaic ground, but she keeps it interesting by suspending the brothers between the traditional values and aspirations of their parents and the exciting lure of criminality and easy cash. She also brings vital specificity to their environment. In that aspect, My Brother the Devil recalls another recent British genre movie, Attack the Block, a killer twist on the classic alien-invasion B-movie given a U.S. theatrical release last year. Both films make superb atmospheric use of the claustrophobic confines of low-income housing estates, and of the richly colorful – if often borderline impenetrable – street vernacular bred by the residents’ multiethnic mix.
The writer-director also negotiates what could have been a schematic role reversal for the brothers with bold narrative assurance.
Without Rash’s knowledge, Mo gets drawn into criminal culture just as his brother attempts to step away after the death of his best friend Izzi (Anthony Welsh) in a gang clash. Rash also develops an intensifying friendship with regular weed customer Sayyid (Saïd Taghmaoui), a French photographer who offers him work as an assistant and a glimpse of another kind of life. “He ain’t road, he ain’t bling,” says one character somewhat suspiciously of Sayyid. “He’s got a classy swagger.”
Still best known for his head-turning debut in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, Taghmaoui brings elements of that screen persona to his role here of a mature, grounded man who has distanced himself from his dangerous youth. Less essential to the principal narrative than the underlying texture is a terrific scene in which Rash brings Sayyid home to dinner. His intelligent discussion of Middle Eastern politics and spirituality with Rash’s parents gives his father (Nasser Memarzia) new respect for his elder son, while Mo is confused and angered by the changes in his big brother.
Just as La Haine launched Taghmaoui, My Brother the Devil should put Floyd on the casting map. Certainly, he has the looks and charisma on which to build a career. Elsayed also is enormously appealing, attempting to mask his character’s unworldly vulnerability with posturing tough-guy attitude. El Hosaini mixes non-professionals with trained actors, adding to the authenticity of the milieu. A notable standout is the lovely Letitia Wright as Aisha, a sweet Muslim girl new to the area, whose tradition-bound self-discipline serves as a useful restraint to Mo.
Aided immeasurably by Iain Kitching’s lean editing and Stuart Earl’s mood-enhancing score, El Hosaini builds suspense by teasing the story in seemingly predictable directions only to subvert expectations and take it someplace less pedestrian. To divulge those curves would diminish the film’s ability to surprise, but let’s just say gay audiences will be invested in the plot and characters.
One of the film’s chief assets is its gorgeous look. Forgoing the usual grim pallor of this type of setting, the director and ace d.p. David Raedeker (who won the cinematography award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance) bring a sharp compositional eye and an elegant balance of gracefulness and agility as developments in the story dictate, closing in to create intimacy with the characters in interior scenes.
While on the surface, this is a variation on boyz-in-the-‘hood dramatic staples, the film is rooted in anglicized Arab culture yet universally accessible in its reflections on identity issues. It’s a very promising debut – slick, muscular, entertaining and emotionally satisfying.
by David Rooney Hollywood Reporter