‘Bruiser’ review: Jalyn Hall and Trevante Rhodes lead a superb cast that tackles violence and father figures | AFI FEST
Children look up to and are influenced by their parents, and that’s not always a good thing. Miles Warren’s searing feature film debut, Bruiser, centers on an impressionable teenager and the two warring father figures whose hatred for each other threatens to tear him apart. Its lived-in feel is enhanced by its complex exploration of morality and responsibility, with none of its characters innocent in the perpetuation of an inescapable cycle of blame and misery.
Jalyn Hall stars as Darious, who returns home from boarding school in the city for a summer of boredom with an old bike and little to do to pass the time. After a minor fight with his childhood friends, Darious encounters Porter (Trevante Rhodes), an unexpected but affirming presence whose drifter lifestyle appeals to Darious. But Darious soon learns that Porter is his real father, something that his mother Monica (Shinelle Azoroh) and adoptive father Malcolm (Shamier Anderson) had not planned on sharing with him, setting up repeated confrontations where both men think they know what’s best for their son.
This film works particularly well in the way that it sets up its characters and their interpersonal dynamics. Malcolm works as a car salesman, hustling to get customers and provide for his family. When he receives a call that Darious’ boarding school scholarship is in jeopardy, he campaigns ardently for a review of the situation so that it can be rectified as soon as possible. He is bald and wears a shirt and tie to work, presenting an image that is radically transformed when he finds out that Porter is back in his son’s life. Porter, on the other hand, is extremely muscular and has a relaxed look that befits his constantly mobile status, and he speaks with a gentleness that hits Darious in a different way than Malcolm’s more authoritative tone.
At the film’s US premiere at the 2022 AFI FEST Film Festival, Warren spoke about how he wanted to showcase Black males and particularly the culture of fighting and brutal violence that he grew up on and continues to be pervasive. When Porter and Malcolm do come to blows, cell phones capture their altercations but there is no glamorization of those incidents. The grittiness that accompanies those scenes feels deliberate, to show that all that’s left after a powerful knockout punch is someone bleeding on the ground and onlookers trying to recover from what they’ve just seen. The impact of merely witnessing a show of dominance is felt in Darious’ subsequent behavior, which includes lashing out at his parents and physical outbursts when he wants to be left alone. He internalizes what he sees almost instantly, and both fathers would have a hard time convincing him that violence is never the answer.
Adapting his own proof-of-concept short film, Warren demonstrates a clear understanding of who his characters are and how audiences might find flaws within all of them, including Monica, who can see just how much Malcolm and Porter detest each other yet does little to defuse that tension or try to keep them apart. Justin Derry’s cinematography heightens the film with its strong use of 4:3 aspect ratio and an emphasis on the camera as an observer, positioned in one scene in the backseat of a car to afford some distance from its characters and just sit in that moment. The score by Robert Ouyang Rusli fluctuates from passive companion to the film’s events to announcer of its darker turns as resentment and fury build.
Warren’s most powerful assets are his three lead actors. Anderson and Rhodes portray two very different types of men, presenting one image to the world and carrying deeper burdens within them from their shared past forged by closeness and torn apart by feelings of abandonment and inferiority. Both performances are remarkably controlled, and watching them boil over as they see nothing but red is a mesmerizing and terrifying process. Hall, who also stars as Emmett Till in this year’s harrowing retelling of his lynching, is quiet and mostly not emotive, coming alive when he connects with Porter or, in one memorable scene, when he begins lifting his father’s weights and then cries out in fear as they begin to crush him when he is unable to replace them. It’s a vulnerable and impressive turn, indicative of Hall’s talent and especially his ability to convey pain and happiness through body language and his own reactive behavior. Alongside Azoroh’s minimal but memorable contributions, this cast poignantly achieves Warren’s vision of flawed but human Black men molded by how society sees them.
This review is from 2022 AFI FEST.