The lives and culture of Muslims in the Western world have been the focus of numerous films since the turn of the century, many of them austere dramas examining the torturous relationship between ordinary, faithful followers of Islam and their extremist cousins. What is it like to be a Muslim in a post-9/11 world? That’s the question, sometimes as subtext but often as text, in this cycle of films. And as worthwhile as that question is, and as multi-faceted as the answers may be, a certain sameness starts to emerge after a while.
One of the things I like about “My Brother the Devil,” the slickly produced feature debut by Egyptian-British writer/director Sally El Hosaini, is that it finds new ways to address these themes, as well as new themes to address. It doesn’t forget to be entertaining, either. Set in the rough council estates of East London, it’s an often gripping coming-of-age story involving rival gangs, societal pressures, self-discovery, brotherly affection, and drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. And knives and guns! Are you not intrigued?
The older of the two brothers, and the one with more devilish tendencies (though that knife cuts both ways), is Rashid (James Floyd), a well-liked drug dealer and all-around hoodlum who hides his activities from his Egyptian-immigrant parents, who keep hounded him to get a job. His little brother, Mo (Fady Elsayed), still in school and a good student to boot, idolizes him the way little brothers do, but Rashid struggles to keep him from following in his footsteps. He redoubles these efforts after a harrowing clash with a rival gang leaves one of Rashid’s friends dead and Rashid badly shaken up. His new attitude is sober and serious. “Death is real, bruv,” he tells Mo. “It ain’t a f*****’ game.”
Rashid wants to get away from this lifestyle now — easier said than done. With no legitimate work experience, it is hard to find a job. With no source of income, it is hard to get out of this violent, dream-crushing neighborhood. With no friends other than the lowlifes he’s been associating with — criminals, albeit generally amiable ones — it is hard to break free from old habits. He has a girlfriend, Vanessa (Elarica Gallacher), whose head is on more or less straight, but she seems to be little more than a booty call for him.
Rashid strikes up a friendship with Sayyid (Said Taghmaoui), a professional photographer and marijuana customer. Like Rashid and most of the others, Sayyid has a Muslim background (no one is very observant here, but it remains part of their culture); unlike Rashid, Sayyid manages to live in the depressing neighborhood without becoming mired in its hopelessness. He has dinner one night with Rashid, Mo, and their parents, and comes across as the sort of positive influence they’d like to see.
Meanwhile, Rashid’s former associates have sworn revenge on their rivals, and Mo is eager to fill his brother’s shoes. He’s resentful of Rashid’s change in attitude, and has his own coming-of-age issues to deal with (including the pursuit of a girlfriend of his own). To say more would be to spoil the film’s surprises, some of which are downright Shakespearean in their cold calculatedness, but the basic issue is this: How many different ways can a person bring dishonor to his people — and what do you expect when the standards are set so high? Rashid and Mo both come to be guilty of several transgressions that range in seriousness from lying to much worse things. Do two wrongs make a right? Is one thing worse than another? How does it all balance out?
The central performances by Floyd and Elsayed are authentic and heartfelt. Both young men convey the characters’ conflicted emotions with the kind of passion that should ring true for anyone who’s experienced sibling rivalry (which should be anyone who’s had a sibling). If the story fizzles out before it’s done, leading to a somewhat anticlimactic finale and unclear choices, it’s forgivable considering the thought-provoking and exceedingly well-crafted character drama that has proceeded it.
B+ (1 hr., 51 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.