The mean streets of East Harlem provide the backdrop of the indie drama “A Brother’s Kiss.” Though the terrain of this family tragedy is familiar, the movie rises above the norm thanks to potent performances and a keen sense of environment. An upscale art film, the modestly produced venture should attract enough theatrical attention to propel decent ancillary revenue and foreign sales.
Pic’s central brothers are street kids raised by a blowzy mother (Cathy Moriarty) who realize early that their survival is linked to watching each other’s back. That bond is taken to the limit as the film opens. Thirtysomething Lex (Nick Chinlund), hopped up on drugs, makes a desperate phone call to his younger brother, Mick (Michael Raynor). The nature of his problem will become clear later.
Reeling back to their childhood, the film zeroes in on the seminal incident of their youth. Late one night, young Lex (Justin Pierce) lifts $10 from his mother and takes his brother (Joshua Danowsky) for a birthday treat of pizza. Walking home through a park, they’re stopped by a plainclothes cop who shakes down the older boy and begins to sodomize Mick. But Lex surprises the assailant, stabs him, grabs his brother and runs. The upshot of the incident is that Lex is taken away to a reformatory; there is no justice.
In adulthood, Mick has joined the police force and settled into a routine bachelor’s life. Lex, unschooled and unfocused, clings to the hope of a professional basketball career. Instead, he gets a local girl (Rosie Perez) pregnant, marries her and tries to make ends meet driving a school bus. He fails, and things get worse and worse.
“A Brother’s Kiss” is based on a short play by filmmaker Seth Zvi Rosenfeld, but its origins smack of scene-study workshop. There’s unquestionably a powerful dynamic between the actors at any given moment, but the piece goes from one emotional high to the next with only a passing nod to narrative momentum, and with an extremely shaky sense of character development and dramatic structure.
It is unquestionably a film about performance and emotion rather than story. On the debit side, its tragic arc is obvious, and when the inevitable comes, there is no sense of surprise or sorrow. The curtain has simply come down.
Still, as the story proceeds, many individual scenes prove compelling. Suspense lies not so much in where the drama is going, but in how the actors will tackle a situation. Rosenfeld has an inarguable affection for his cast, and draws wonderful support turns from such actors as Perez, Moriarty, John Leguizamo and especially Marisa Tomei, as a bright young woman losing her edge to addiction.
Both Chinlund and Raynor give extraordinary performances, with the former enlivening the juicier, more flashy part. The balance between the two performers, and Raynor’s centered restraint, allow both characterizations to work in a way that sweeps aside viewer reservations about the logic of blood ties and behavior.
Also key to the pic’s effectiveness is the camerawork of Fortunato Procopio. There’s a wonderful clarity to his imagery and subtlety to his lighting that heighten both the real and nightmare qualities of the locations.