A Searing Coming of Age Story About Black Masculinity [Review]

Feb 24, 2023

There’s a moment in “Bruiser,” a somber, lyrical coming-of-age tale set during a difficult Alabama summer, which speaks to the corrosive battle at the heart of the film. “You got a disease in your heart. It’s killing your family,” exclaims Porter (Trevante Rhodes, “Moonlight”), the absentee father to young Darious (Jalyn Hall, “Till”), the son he abandoned 13 years ago. Porter is the former best friend of Darious’ adoptive father, Malcolm (Shamier Anderson, “Stowaway”), a man so consumed by the fear of losing his family he’s slowly crushing it.
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In Miles Warren’s feature directorial debut, “Bruiser,” Darious is a teenager going through teenage growing pains. Now that he attends an affluent prep school — one his father has been on the phone with to win further financial support for his son — his former neighborhood friends see him as an outsider. One kid, Mike, bullies him to the point of the two getting into a bloody “boy will be boys” fight. Darious staggers down toward a boat house sitting on a creek where Porter is staying. Ever since Rhodes shot through cinemas as Black, the adult Chrion, it’s been an interminable wait to see him find a role worthy of his ability. But as Rhodes kinetically sways, his dreads as elusive as his heart, a glimmer of his talent rises to the surface like a glint atop the water. 
Malcolm knows Porter can’t be trusted. Or can he? Despite the plaintive, empathetic wants of his wife Monica (Shinelle Azoroh), Malcolm is unwilling to give Porter enough time to prove himself. Because there are some wounds that time cannot heal. With the arrival of Porter, the worst parts of Malcolm, what he wants to suppress — his temper, cruelty, and insincerity — spring back. The charming Porter isn’t any different. Both men ultimately use Darious as a pawn for their own past squabbles. 
Hall, who emerged last year playing the ebullient Emmett Till, taps into a totally different range as the troubled teen in “Bruiser.” Similar to Porter and Malcolm, Darious transforms. He moves from a shy, reserved kid — with a supposed girlfriend that has little desire to FaceTime him — to a defiant and irate teen, prone to violent outbursts that quite literally shake the walls of his quaint home. He remains close to his mother but comes to defy Malcolm — a man he believes is a liar (and with good reason). He begins spending more time with Porter, riding on the back of his bike and playing in a theme park. 
These scenes, sometimes, lyrically slow to molasses ala “Crooklyn” or speed up like a mosquito. The slightly overexposed lighting by cinematographer Justin Derry, steadied by oblique angles and smart blocking, is matched by Robert Ouyang Rusli’s poetic, pinching score. 
In its emotional timbre resides a unique interest in masculinity, not unlike Jeremiah Zagar’s “We The Animals.” This isn’t a film composed of big, overloaded speeches or broad, unbelievable actions. It’s not toxic masculinity™. It’s a crucible of interpersonal tension that tightens to unthinkable ends done with a soft touch and a meditative pulse that seems to blow to rhythms of the rural landscape. Sharp cuts and shredded feelings build to an acidic conclusion filled with violence in the shadows. And Darious grows even while the adults around him shrink.
“Bruiser” is an anxious film filled with unmistakable beauty and obsessed with conceptions of family, love, growth, the past, and the future. Even when it wanders, taking a beat too long to jump toward its inevitable conclusion, the desire to leap makes Warren a fresh, vibrant voice poised to deliver further feats. [B+]  

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