Shot entirely in Hackney — a mostly ungentrified London borough — My Brother the Devil has a strong odor of authenticity. The main characters are of Egyptian origin, but their friends include people rooted in West Africa and the Caribbean. All are linked by poverty, alienation and a gangsta worldview popularized by American movies and hip-hop.
Egyptian-Welsh writer-director Sally El Hosaini lives in Hackney and spent several years researching the characters she’s scripted. They’re played by a polyethnic, multi-accented and largely nonprofessional cast that’s entirely persuasive.
The plot, alas, is less credible. Making her feature debut, El Hosaini stirs too many themes into her tough-guy stew. And ultimately, she backtracks from the story’s implications, leaving her protagonists in somewhat happier circumstances than their actions make likely.
The action spins around two brothers, Rash (short for Rashid) and Mo (apparently a contraction of Mohammed). Rash (James Floyd) is older and tougher, an aspiring boxer and a member of a gang imaginatively dubbed DMG — Drugs, Money, Guns. Would-be rapper Mo (Fady Elsayed) is still in school and doing well there. But he idolizes his brother and covets his easygoing if potentially savage lifestyle.
The two siblings still live at home, where Dad is clueless and Mom less so. (She appreciates the 20-pound notes Rash sometimes slips into her wallet.) The boys sleep in bunk beds, where Mo pretends to be in dreamland while Rash is intimate with his girlfriend (Elarica Gallacher). Mo’s own love interest (Letitia Wright) is a well-behaved Muslim who doesn’t smoke, drink or curse, yet doesn’t complain when Mo does all that and more.
A string of clashes with a rival crew, led by a guy called Demon, make Rash doubt he can continue with the gang. But as he tries to disengage from the trade in “food” (that is, marijuana and cocaine), Mo seeks to enlist. Which brother is the devil, it seems, changes from moment to moment.
Rash finds an unlikely refuge with one of his more upscale pot customers, the French-accented Sayyid (Said Taghmaoui, who helped depict Paris’ Hackney-like neighborhoods in such films as 1995’s Hate). A successful photographer with a studio in a renovated warehouse, Sayyid is older and better educated than Rash, and more firmly connected to his forebears’ culture. He’s the only person in the movie who prefers traditional Arab music to hip-hop, techno and dub reggae.
Sayyid is also gay, which precipitates separate crises for Rash and Mo. The younger brother violates many Islamic injunctions, but is utterly old-school in his homophobia. Worried that Rash has become too close to Sayyid, Mo spreads a bizarre rumor: His bother has become a terrorist.
Taghmaoui’s presence isn’t the film’s only Gallic touch. Cinematographer David Raedeker shoots in a fluid hand-held style more associated with French than British film. His unpredictable camera moves make the scenes more visceral and intimate, as if the viewer is constantly jostling for the best perspective on the claustrophobic spaces and secretive characters.
My Brother the Devilwas supported by the Sundance Institute and, despite its London setting, is much like the working-class American dramas Sundance typically enables. It’s earnest, carefully detailed and finally a bit glib. El Hosaini fights the conventions of the brotherly gangster melodrama, but the conventions win.