Film Review: My Brother the Devil

Unsure performances and some decades-old gangster-film stereotypes hamper this acute, beautifully shot portrait of Egyptian teenagers fighting to survive in a rough London neighborhood.

As older brothers go, Rashid (James Floyd) is not so bad. Although he’s given to arbitrarily punching and berating his younger teenage brother Mo (Fady Elsayed), as would be expected, he also keeps an eye out for the kid and doesn’t want him to follow in his footsteps. The boys are being raised by a couple of hard-working and traditional Cairene immigrants. But the streets outside their small high-rise flat in the London neighborhood of Hackney are filled with temptations that have already lured Rashid far astray by the time writer-director Sally El Hosaini’s debut film begins. Mo is tired of being seen as the kid who gets good grades and also unimpressed by Rashid’s “Do as I say and not as I do” brand of sibling instruction; so he starts secretly working with Rashid’s pack of drug-slinging bangers. Although the conflict that this sets up for the brothers is hardly new territory, Hosaini’s take on it veers into some unexpected complications that keep the drama crackling.

A lot of things in My Brother the Devil feel second-hand, some of them intentionally so. The mannerisms of all the local gangster wannabes are imported wholesale from American rap vernacular (complete with caps for baseball teams none of them have likely ever seen play), albeit churned through the semi-impregnable rhythms of their native Hackney slang. Mo’s desire to sign up for their whole dead-ender version of live-fast-die-young street glam—which he seems woefully unprepared for—just as Rashid becomes eager to escape from all of that is an old-as-the-hills trope.

Hosaini speckles some new ingredients throughout her story, though, that will keep most viewers plugged in, even through a first half-hour that takes its time finding the story’s hook. Moving the story in a different direction entirely is Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), a Parisian photographer to whom Rashid delivers drugs. A common angle would have had Saïd take one or both of the brothers under his wing to show them that there’s a wide world outside the mean streets of Hackney, but Hosaini presents him more as an accidental catalyst. After Rashid’s best friend Izzy (Anthony Welsh) is killed by a rival gang, Saïd is there to comfort Rashid, and also kiss him. The audience would have sussed out Rashid’s tendencies much earlier, once they saw him in an unguarded moment draping his arm across Izzy’s shoulders. But once Mo discovers his brother’s relationship with Saïd, it’s an earthquake of a revelation for this teenage boy stuck at the crossroads of religious and cultural intolerance and the street’s inflexible codes of violent masculinity.

Hosaini’s melodrama bites off more than it can chew and is held back by the unsure quality of some of her performers—Elsayed in particular, whose unseasoned work keeps Mo from being nearly as engaging a character as the similarly conflicted Rashid. But her elegantly gauzy camerawork (which avoids the expected hard, noir-ish high-contrast look) and highly sensitive attention to the brothers’ surroundings maintains a level of interest that would otherwise have waned by the time Mo is forced to decide which he loves more: his brother or his new life as a rookie gangster.