Indie Roundup: ‘My Brother the Devil’

It’s a story as old as cinema itself: a criminal who struggles to shield his loved ones from the allure and brutal realities of life on the wrong side of the law. You can see it in classic Warner Brothers gangster flicks starring James Cagney and in ‘The Godfather.” Director Sally El Hosaini’s debut feature, “My Brother the Devil,” gives us a bracing new take on this archetypal tale.

[Related: Indie Roundup: Revisit and Rethink Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ in ‘Room 237′]

Mo (Fady Elsayed) is a studious teen of Egyptian descent living with his family in a modest flat in a rough neighborhood in London. He suffers from a severe case of hero worship. His older, suave brother Rashid (James Floyd) runs with a band of bottom-rung drug runners. The bling and the babes of his brother’s world dazzle Mo. Yet Rashid isn’t just a street tough; he has a heart of gold. At one point in the beginning of the film, we see him reaching into his mother’s purse and pulling out her wallet, not to palm money but to slide an extra 20 quid notes in. When Rashid sees his best mate get a mortal stab wound to the neck during a pointless scuffle with a rival gang, he starts to feel increasingly disillusioned with the thug’s life, while Mo finds himself more and more sucked into its orbit.

Just when you think that you know where the movie is going — little brother spiraling into a life of crime as big brother watches, helpless — things take an unexpected turn. Rashid starts to hang out with Sayyid (Said Taghmaoui), a successful photographer who climbed his way out of the same mean streets. What starts out as a job as a photographer’s assistant for Rashid, turns into a full-on sexual awakening. After learning the truth, Mo lashes out, overwhelmed by a toxic mix of jealousy, disappointment and age-old bigotry, testing his fraternal bonds. By the end of the movie, you’re not entirely sure which brother deserves the moniker “the devil.”

El Hosaini manages to wrap just about every hot-button issue — class, race, sexuality, and the immigrant experience — into one neatly contained narrative but does so in a manner that’s nuanced, raw and believable. A real feat. She also manages to elicit great performances from her actors with Floyd being a stand out. Mark my words, you’ll be seeing more of James Floyd in the future. And while the ending of “My Brother the Devil” might not fully hold together, it’s still an engrossing, moving look at what it’s like to young and poor in London.

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April 2013

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