Miles Warren’s feature debut “Bruiser” feels like a notable announcement of some major talent, but I worry that it will go unheard as it’s buried on Hulu today. It’s a deeply empathetic film that’s a little rough around the edges, and can’t quite figure out where to end, but there’s no denying the young artistry on display here. As it tells the story of a young man trying to figure himself out through two very different male role models in his life, “Bruiser” displays an ability to balance the lyrical and the genuine.
The very talented Jalyn Hall (who played Emmett Till in “Till” last year) plays Darious, a 14-year-old who struggles with his disciplinarian father Malcolm (Shamier Anderson) and mother Monica (Shinelle Azoroh, so excellent on Apple’s wildly underrated “Swagger”). Darious is at that age when you start to discover that your values and worldview may not be the same as your father’s. Malcolm seems like a well-meaning father, but he also often fails to listen to Darious, and arguably sometimes takes his work struggles—and the difficulty he’s having paying for his son’s private school—out on the boy. It doesn’t help that Darious is also being bullied at school by boys who also don’t know what it means to be a man.
Warren then drops a melodrama into this tumultuous time of an adolescent’s life. After rough-housing gets intense in the way it sometimes happens with dumb boys, Darious finds himself running to a nearby river, where he happens upon a drifter named Porter (Trevante Rhodes), who begins to mentor the kid, teaching him stuff his dad has no interest in. It turns out—and this isn’t a spoiler because it’s revealed very early—that Porter is Darious’ real father. Monica chose Malcolm when they were young, and all three have secrets about that era and a violent act that shaped all of their lives. Of course, they won’t remain secrets for long.
There’s a certain predestination to “Bruiser” in that “the father who lives by the river will let you down” is a lesson that anyone who has seen a movie will know our protagonist will have to learn. But Warren has a remarkable emotional immediacy, one that he brings out with his cast. Hall was effective in his limited screen time in “Till,” but he shows his range here, finding truth in a familiar set-up. Like so many young men, Darious isn’t even sure what he’s looking for from Porter, but Hall makes it believable. He just wants a new male influence in his life, someone willing to listen to him instead of just pushing him. And so we go on Darious’ journey with him, a trip that’s greatly enhanced by fluid camerawork from Justin Derry that frames him in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which makes the adolescent pressure on him feel even greater by the tightness of the image.
Anderson and Azoroh are solid as well, but the adult performance that energizes this film is from Rhodes, doing his best work since “Moonlight.” There’s a bit of Chiron energy in Porter as Rhodes creates a fascinating blend of confidence and vulnerability. Porter doesn’t tell him at first, but it feels like he truly wants to be a good father figure to his son—he just may not have the skill set to do so. As the film reaches its climax, Rhodes creates a captivating unpredictability with Porter. He’s a character who could truly make a bad decision at any given time, giving him a recklessness that adds such unique energy to his attempts to be a dad.
Naturally, things come to a head in “Bruiser,” and the final scenes are riveting, but I question where Warren and co-writer Ben Medina choose to end their piece. Without spoiling, they seem understandably hesitant to take anyone’s side but Darious, reminding us that this was always about his growth and not the skeletons that Porter and Malcolm seem willing to dig out of their closets. (Although I love that the writers don’t spell out exactly the details of their past other than to suggest that Malcolm has left the violence of youth behind while Porter may not have reached that maturity yet.)
Stories of Black fathers are common in indie drama, but Warren’s feels true and vital in ways that avoid clichés. Some scenes could have been tightened, but the director knows how to add just the right details—the way he physically delineates Malcolm and Porter, the former in suits and the latter often shirtless, is just one fascinatingly subtle detail—and there’s a great sense of space and setting here. I have a feeling we will look back on “Bruiser” as the affirmation of two major talents in Hall and Warren. Like Darious himself, they’re just getting started.
On Hulu today.