Using the intimacy and agility of a compact DV camera to expose the raw sentiments of an obsessive relationship between two troubled teens, British documaker Dom Rotheroe moves into features with “My Brother Tom.” Notable for its atmospheric fairy-tale setting, its dark intensity and aching depiction of adolescent vulnerability, the overwrought drama nonetheless fails to summon the edge and emotional truth that it aims for. Main interest point, which should ensure some festival mileage, is the work of cinematographer Robby Muller, who follows “Dancer in the Dark” by continuing to explore the visual boundaries of digital filming.
Drama adopts the emotionally seismic p.o.v. of Jessica (Jenna Harrison), a privileged, seemingly content girl in a small Hertfordshire town. A collector of wounded animals, she is drawn to Tom (Ben Whishaw), a weird kid who takes a fancy to her and begins trailing her through the woods after school. When Jessica’s teacher and neighbor Jack (Adrian Rawlins) forces himself upon her, Jessica, unable to talk about the incident, takes refuge in the woods with Tom.
Rotheroe ably exploits the traditional associations of the dense forest as an enchanted place but also one of mystery and menace. Here it becomes a sanctuary where two damaged kids find comfort and safety. Exploring each other with savage, quasi-sexual urgency in a makeshift burrow — and in a somewhat gratingly theatrical, ritualistic style — Jessica and Tom form a bond that transcends romance, like twins drawn together by their unspoken pain.
Jessica follows Tom home and witnesses him being sexually abused by his father (Jonathan Hackett), who has convinced the boy he deserves punishment for his mother’s death during childbirth. When his secret is exposed, Tom pulls away from Jessica. When Tom resurfaces, Jessica confesses what happened with Jack. But Tom — now more like a wild forest creature than a boy — responds with unforeseen violence, sparking tragic repercussions.
There’s more than a hint of self-gratification and affected artfulness in Rotheroe’s approach that dulls the emotional impact of the material, giving it a somewhat artificial feel. But the two young leads give pained, very physical performances, heightened by Muller’s restlessly probing, literally in-their-face camerawork, which captures every unstable jolt of the kids’ battered psyches.