“Bruiser” builds to a massive brawl that, in a different kind of film, would be the main attraction. But director Miles Warren has other priorities than sensationalizing violence between Black men in a movie that is instead preoccupied with where such aggression comes from. Insightful and universal in so many ways, Warren’s first feature is a confident if sometimes oblique coming-of-age story from an important new voice, focused on an African American teen torn between two very different role models, one who insists that he stay focused and “take his lumps,” the other ready to teach the boy how to defend himself in a fight.
Fourteen-year-old Darious (Jalyn Hall) has all kinds of reasons to be angry. His parents, Malcolm (Shamier Anderson) and Monica (Shinelle Azoroh), send him to a private school full of relatively privileged kids. His classmates have summer vacations to Greece to look forward to, but when the break comes, Darious must return to the modest reality of his own life, where he can’t afford a new bike and gets pushed around by white kids. Darious wants sympathy, but instead, his car-salesman dad is strict and frequently distracted.
The boy takes for granted how much Malcom is doing to earn money and arrange scholarships so Darious can have a better education than he did. This is a nuance of the American dream that “Bruiser” understands but most people overlook: In the United States, success is possible, but it’s usually iterative: Parents hope their kids will have it easier, but it can take generations to get to a place of comfort. Distracted by his rich classmates, Darious doesn’t realize how good he has it. And besides, he’s tired of getting beaten up.
“I want to learn to protect myself,” Darious asserts, but the only one who’ll show him is Porter (Trevante Rhodes), a muscular drifter he meets by accident behind “the John house,” one of the local kids’ hangout spots. Darious sees in Porter something he wants for himself — self-confidence and strength certainly, independence perhaps — adopting this hyper-masculine adult as a kind of surrogate father figure, not realizing (spoiler alert) that the man is actually his biological dad.
Porter puts it together right away, recognizing who Darious is, which helps to explain the instant (but unusual) connection between these two characters. You’d think Darious would be more wary of strangers. Still, he resents Malcolm’s discipline and is searching for guidance where he can get it, ignoring his parents’ objections and spending time with Porter on the sly. The movie takes its time in revealing how Darious’ family rebuilt itself after Porter abandoned them, though Warren and co-writer Ben Medina never provide all the answers. It’s more realistic that way. There’s a his-word-against-mine quality to the competing accounts, as the movie sets up Malcolm and Porter as rivals to raise the boy. But one thing is clear: Both men have a history of violence, while Darious has a capacity for it within himself.
The film’s dream-like opening shot shows the three of them sprawled out on the grass, and though we have no context to interpret it at the time, it lingers there in our memories until the climax, when Darious’ two dads come to blows over who will raise the boy. Anderson and Rhodes handle their roles well, tearing into each other like two grizzlies when the time comes, but Hall — the fresh-faced young actor who recently played Emmett Till — feels like more of a discovery. In “Till,” Hall’s character is brutally murdered early on, whereas “Bruiser” is riding on his performance. Darious doesn’t speak much, bottling up most of his frustrations, and yet the actor communicates the boy’s complex emotions throughout.
DP Justin Derry shoots the film mostly from Darious’ point of view, although there are a few scenes that privilege his parents: We meet his mom before Darious is introduced, for example, and we repeatedly see Malcolm on the phone alone. One of the things that makes “Bruiser” so effective is the way it re-creates the adolescent experience: Darious reminds how it feels to be insecure and impatient, anxious over a long-distance relationship he can sense unraveling, itching to get out of the dead-end place he was born into.
That intense, evocative subjectivity reminded me of “Moonlight” — especially the middle chapter, about teenage Chiron. While “Bruiser” is not as well rounded overall, it promises great things to come from Warren. The helmer avoids clichés while making the story specific to these characters, answering stereotypes of Black aggression with images of family and church life. From the squarish Academy ratio and unconventional framing to composer Robert Ouyang Rusli’s tense, bracing-for-conflict score, Warren’s choices frequently surprise, building to an ending that does exactly the right thing with the showdown we could feel coming all along.
The first narrative feature acquired by Disney’s new Onyx Collective label, “Bruiser” receives a limited theatrical run the week of Dec. 2, before being released on Hulu in 2023.