A young man takes an awfully long time to discover what the audience already knows — that his disabled brother is the most precious thing in his life — in “My Brother,” a heavy-handed redemption story fresh off the African-American fest circuit. Heading up pic’s nearly all-black cast, Vanessa Williams delivers a decidedly non-glam performance as the mother who wants her boys to stick together. Pushing uplift instead of action, white writer-director Anthony Lover brings sensitivity to both the cultural differences and his “special” young stars. “My Brother’s” sincere story could could attract modest urban business before finding its niche on DVD.
An undercurrent of religiosity sets the tone for the film’s moralist message, as terminally ill L’Tisha Morton (Williams) tells her son Isaiah (played by Rodney Henry in flashbacks and Nashawn Kearse in the present) that “the good Lord blessed us: two brothers, one soul.” But after years of baby-sitting his developmentally disabled soulmate James (Christopher Scott as an adult, Donovan Jennings as a child — both actors with Down syndrome), 30-year-old Isaiah wants to go his own way and become a standup comic.
For a film about an aspiring comedian, “My Brother” offers precious few laughs. A failure onstage, Isaiah resorts to taking a shady courier job exchanging unmarked packages for a gang of Middle Eastern goons. But before he can complete his first delivery, the envelope disappears.
There’s no question Lover intends “My Brother” to focus on Isaiah and James relationship. However, by introducing the mysterious package (and an unlikely love interest in the form of Tatum O’Neal), he creates a distracting McGuffin sure to drive auds crazy. While the movie detours into dreary flashbacks of Isaiah’s tough-love childhood, they’ll be left wondering what’s in the envelope and, more importantly, why Isaiah doesn’t check the spot where it’s almost certainly hidden.
Pic would have done better to reveal the brothers’ childhood dynamic earlier. Instead, it’s not until long after the thugs who hired Isaiah show up at his apartment — roughing up poor James in the process — that auds even get a sense of their relationship. Strong acting helps, including impressive perfs from two special-needs thesps. (In an intriguing twist, Kearse, who appeared as Alfre Woodard’s “slow” son on “Desperate Housewives,” plays it straight here.)
Auds must wait nearly an hour for Williams to get a proper scene as the tough-as-nails mother. Stripped of makeup and attitude, the actress couldn’t be more different here from her vampy “Ugly Betty” persona: When Williams isn’t essaying a Savannah accent to advise her sons on living honorably, she’s coughing in bloody tubercular fits.
No wonder Isaiah never gets personal on stage. But revealing the grim details of his past doesn’t substitute for proper redemption in the present, and Isaiah never actually does anything (except stare out a train window and narrate his flashbacks) to suggest a transformation, betraying a level of amateurishness at the story level otherwise masked by the pic’s production values.