As the kids seek a wider view of life, they're too frequently faced with walls, whether council flats tower blocks or painted with murals.
"I said if he stayed in school, I'd get him something good." And so Rashid (James Floyd) bestows on his 18-year--old brother Mo (Fady Elsayed) a gift, a television of his own. Mo is thrilled, just come home from school, still wearing his backpack over his shoulders, his white shirttails untucked and his uniform tie loosened. As their father Abdul-Aziz (Nasser Memarzia) enters the scene in My Brother the Devil, the shot is crowded: with the stairway in their council flats home taking up half the frame, the way to the back of it looks long and dimly lit. And, even as the boys smile with excitement, and their mother, Hanan (Amira Ghazalla), with hesitation, their father, an Egyptian born bus driver, frowns. "Where did you get the money for this?" he asks, the shot cutting to show his face, centered and grim.
Abdul-Aziz's question is rhetorical, as he has a good idea of the answer, and also anticipates his sons' dissembling: it's an "old model," Rash says, he's paying "bit by bit," while Mo adds, "I Know the shop." Their father isn't buying it: he knows Rash doesn’t have a job. He knows he's a drug dealer. The tension between father and sons fills the frame and foyer, as Hanan is literally pushed out. Just so, in just a couple of minutes, My Brother the Devil establishes the family's tensions, the father's traditionalism and disappointment, repeatedly opposed to the boys' frustrations and ambitions. As for Hanan, she is too typically pushed to the edges of her family's experience, quietly observing and fretting, hoping for the best.
The film's focus on the boys is close, often literally. Handheld shots show the brothers in close-ups and in confined spaces, in their tiny bunk-bedded room, on their flat's modest balcony, in narrow alleys and corner shops, on dark night streets. The camera remains mobile in these spaces, underlining how the boys and their friends bang up against such restrictions, their restlessness and their guesses at how to get over. Growing up in London's East End, the brothers see each day that Abdul-Aziz's hard work has yielded little, and also that racism and classism constitute a circular logic. As much as Rash urges Mo to get good grades, neither brother is quite convinced this is a means to escape. Perceived as thugs and terrorists, Rash and his friends have assumed that identity. They ride in cars that show off their money, they carry guns and conceal their business, they party in one-room apartments where the only furniture is secondhand couches.
The drama in Sally El Hosaini's film emerges in Rash and Mo's evolving relationship, as mutual admiration gives way to a series of disappointments, initiated when Rash suffers a predictable but still devastating loss. After his best friend and fellow gang member Izzi (Anthony Welsh) is killed, Rash imagines revenge -- until, mid-mission, he comes face to face with his target. Or rather, as yet another very close shot reveals, he sees that the kid's white-sneakered feet don't even reach the floor from the stool where he sits.
While Rash struggles with basic definitions of masculinity (if he can't shoot an enemy, what kind of man is he?), Mo seeks community with the younger drug-runners associated with Rash's crew, making his own money and becoming his own version of a tough guy. This even as he continues to hang out with a couple of very young-seeming friends, Aisha (Letitia Wright) and Jamie (Aaron Ishmael), fond of wearing his baseball cap backwards. As Jamie launches into a theory that it's okay for Mo to eat porkies because they're not real pork, only flavored with chemicals, you appreciate both his childish naïvete and also the gang's generally childish guesses about how to become men, as they cite role models as broadly different as Tony Montana and Bob Marley. When Rashid begins to read Kahlil Gibran, well, that only confuses Mo more.
That confusion has to do with girls as much as guns. While Hanan plainly loves both boys (and Mo in particular likes to spend time with her, laughing at the Bollywood movies they watch together on TV), their home life is all about dad's rules, which inflects the son's expectations and also their resentments. Mo's shy but intrigued with the Aisha (who wears a hijab), while Rash is only increasingly awkward with his British girlfriend Vanessa (Elarica Gallacher); it's not long before he discovers he's attracted to a former client, the sophisticated Parisian photographer (and Kahlil Gibran reader) Sayyid (Saïd Taghmaoui), and then, of course, Mo discovers that relationship (through yet another limited view, as he peeps into Sayyid's window), yet another wrench in his efforts to sort out ... what it means to be a man.
The theme is familiar, but in My Brother the Devil, the violence and the drugs are framing devices rather than the focus. Pressed one night to explain his visible upset over his brother's changes, Mo blurts out to Aisha and Jamie that "they," meaning Rash and Sayyid, are involved in "terrorist shit." The children are duly frightened and also supportive, Aisha hugging Mo tightly and Jamie awed. "Are you serious, man?" he asks, the scene cutting to reveal they stay outside until the sun comes up, in a park surrounded by colorful murals on walls, sirens echoing in the distant background. Advised that he should tell his parents, Mo looks away and mutters, "Can't."
Mo's inability to turn to anyone who resembles an adult -- not a teacher or parent or "someone at the mosque" -- underlines the film's focus on his and the other kids' perspectives, constrained by definition. As they seek more experience and more options, a wider view, they're too frequently faced with walls, whether council flats tower blocks or painted with murals.