Review by Jonathan Berk
For Bruiser to be the directorial debut of Miles Warren is quite a statement of intent. The film opens with an overhead shot of three men who appear to be unconscious laying on a very green field. One of them slowly starts to move as the music crescendos to a smash cut of the title card. Immediately, the audience should feel themselves being guided by the capable hands of Warren as we follow Monica (Shinelle Azoroh) picking up her son Darius (Jalyn Hall) from boarding school. The storytelling in this film is efficient and impactful, helped by the strong visual style and the score. All these trappings are then rested on the shoulders of an incredible cast that keeps the film rolling until its finale. It is an impressive debut film, to say the least.
Darius is on summer break before his 8th-grade year, and we all know what a trying time that is. That age is when you are stuck in this transition period of not being a kid, but not yet an adult. Darius is also stuck between his rich friends from school and the neighborhood kids back home, which is ultimately laid out by his father, Malcolm (Shamier Anderson), when Darius asks for a new bike. Where the plot kicks in when Darius finds himself stuck between Malcolm and Porter (Trevante Rhodes), a charismatic drifter he meets on a chance encounter. These three characters and the dynamics between them and their past become the big pull of this movie, and young Darius is left spinning trying to unstick himself from all his 14-year-old struggles.
The performances of the three men are all outstanding. Hall was also in Till last year and continues to demonstrate his young talent. It would be surprising to not continue to see him in roles like this for many years to come. Anderson demonstrates this incredible duality in his performance as Malcolm. You see past the facade he wears to the turmoil writhing underneath. Malcolm so desperately wants to be the man he presents to the world, but internally fears he is all the things he doesn’t want to be. Malcolm clings so desperately to this hope that he doesn’t realize the damage it causes to the ones he loves. All of that is detectable by Anderson’s mannerisms and size. Rhodes delivers on the hope the cinematic world had for his career when he played Black in Moonlight. From the moment he shouts at Darius and introduces himself, Porter becomes an instantly compelling character. Rhodes uses his muscular form to insert himself both on screen and as a character to not trifle with. Every moment, word, and look Rhodes does is deliberate, and when things get heated, it all comes to a satisfying moment.
The film is quiet at times and wants the audience to meditate on the circumstances and relationships. Warren and his team demonstrate competence in the storytelling and building of tension throughout the movie. There is a simple scene where Darius decides to test his strength. The camera sets wide, and as the audience winces in anticipation of the impending doom, as we know Darius can’t possibly do the thing he’s attempting to do, the camera stays locked on. You can look away, but the camera will not. No rapid editing or close-ups hide the horror or reveal if anyone else is aware of what is happening. The tension rises, and not until it breaks does the camera cut to a new perspective. While there is no one way to do a scene, it is clear if the choices made are impactful once it is put on the screen. Whether that credit falls solely to Warren, the editor James Lesage, his co-writer Ben Medina, cinematographer Justin Derry, or a combination of the whole team, it doesn’t change the impact of that moment.
It would be a disservice not to mention the use of music in the film. Otis Redding’s “Cigarettes and Coffee" is played at least three times in the film. The motif has a thematic impact, and the tone matches the film perfectly. It first appears on the car ride home from boarding school in a touching moment of reconnection with Monica and Darius. She is singing it, and he just isn’t having it. There is a clear distance between them after a year away, and she is trying to sneak past his guards. The cracks are visible, but he quickly pushes back and establishes his desire to be his own man, even if he isn’t ready to be there yet. The car becomes a major symbol of his maturity and independence throughout the film, starting here, as Monica lets him steer for a moment as they near the house.
Bruiser was a pleasant surprise at almost every turn. The performances were incredible, the story was tense and intriguing, and the film has many things to love about it. However, it is not a feel-good coming-of-age story, and the audience may be left feeling a bit gut-punched ruminating on the lyrics of “Cigarettes and Coffee” and the various interpretations of the events in the film. If that sounds like your cup of coffee, you’ll likely enjoy Bruiser.
Bruiser drops on Hulu on February 24.