Bruiser is methodical in its commitment to building tension, and the result is a fascinating portrait of youth in revolt. Miles Warren’s direction is finely tuned and his and Ben Medina’s script is just as crisp. The tone and performances take the film to an entirely different level. The cinematography, lighting, and pillar box all add layers to expand and complement the filmmaking. Best of all, the story knows precisely where it’s going and has no interest in holding the audience’s hand.
Darious (Till’s Jalyn Hall) returns to his rural town after a year at an expensive boarding school only to find that he hates his old friends and doesn’t get along with his stepdad Malcolm (Shamier Anderson). Darious tries to confide in his girlfriend from school, but she makes it clear she doesn’t want to talk as much as he wants to. As Darious begins to feel more and more isolated, his loneliness transforms into anger in the form of a fistfight with old friends. Bloodied and nursing hurt pride, he stumbles across Porter (Trevante Rhodes), a boathouse-dwelling drifter who offers him the friendship he desperately wants. After the encounter, Porter’s presence in Darious’ life begins to upset his mother Monica (Shinelle Azoroh), and leads to tension between Malcolm and Porter.
Violence is a virus. It can spread faster than mankind can stop it and once it takes hold of someone there is no telling when they will make their move. Bruiser builds upon that theme, developing it into a riveting family dynamic. Like a torch, the fire of violence is passed from father to son and back again. Hall, who stars in The CW’s All American, and Anderson (Awake) trade blows and words like prizefighters. Rhodes (Moonlight), on the other hand, manipulates the idea of violence to groom the young Hall and evoke the true brutality of violence to outwit Anderson, his counterpart.
Hall was outstanding in Till, and he is even better in Bruiser. Giving a quiet but conflicted performance, Hall is both compelling and aware enough to let his scene partners have room to breathe. Azoroh gives a heartfelt performance as the cool mom whose son doesn’t know he has the cool mom. But it’s Rhodes and Anderson who steal the film. The script brilliantly pits them against each other even though they have the same inner conflict. Rhodes plays the charming vagabond with a dark twinkle in his eye; the audience will instantly be taken by him. Shades of his pitch-perfect performance in Moonlight are on display here in a way that harkens to the best parts of Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece. Anderson is a volcano in every scene. Whether he is smiling through hyperventilating on the phone with a student loan officer or pummeling a man’s face in, he is either about to blow or exploding offscreen. The anxiety in his performance creeps under the audience’s skin in a wonderfully chaotic way.
The most impressive thing about Bruiser is that it is a Black film in the most natural way. Race plays a part in a father’s anxiety about getting his son attending a mostly white school. Race plays a part as two Black men beat the hell out of each other, but Medina’s script is perfectly aware of these themes while still not making it the center of the story. Warren’s film, a feature-length adaption of his 2021 short, is a vision of toxic masculinity that keeps one guessing. The filmmaking itself is just as intriguing. Some scenes are lit like horror movies, which fits perfectly in this psychological thriller. And though the movie isn’t shot on film, it is pillar boxed, giving it a claustrophobic feel in even the most tender scenes.
Bruiser is a classic tale of a father and son who are just not on the same page at this moment in their lives. The danger, of course, is that kids don’t know what they are doing and will turn to whatever seems easiest or most fun in a time of crisis. But a lost adult can be just as terrifying. The writing, direction, and acting are spectacular. The score by Robert Ouyang Rusli is stirring and never ceases to amaze. Among 2023’s film entries, Bruiser stands among the year’s best so far.
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Bruiser is streaming on Hulu as of February 24. The film is 97 minutes long and is not rated.