Miles Warren’s Bruiser is not an easy film to watch. What starts as a simple coming-of-age drama following the tribulations of young Darious (Jalyn Hall) morphs into an impactful and terrifying portrait of manhood when Darious’s birth father, Porter (Trevante Rhodes), comes back into town and wants to spend time with his son. His adoptive father, Malcolm (Shamier Anderson), vehemently disapproves and will prevent Darious from seeing Porter. However, Darious isn’t on speaking terms with Malcolm, who is frequently abusive towards him, which causes him to seek out Porter’s protection from him.
The movie becomes a competition between the two as they vie for Darious’ attention. Porter appears more loving and caring towards Darious, while Malcolm’s overprotection causes him to be more erratic and violent as his past catches up with him. Everything problematic with his past life starts with Porter, whom he despises with all his heart. He thinks that by developing an “alpha” personality, Darious will love him, but the two soon start to become toxic toward their son and further rift themselves apart from him.
The biggest shame about Bruiser is how few people will see it. The movie has been released on Hulu with no significant promotional campaign, even if Rhodes was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his incredible performance, and will likely be forgotten as the 2024 awards season kicks into gear. And it is a shame – the film is one of the best character studies I’ve seen in a long time. Again, it’s not an easy film to watch, and it gets particularly violent near the end. Even then, you can’t look away. It’s a movie that stays with you long after it’s over, mainly how Rhodes, Hall, and Anderson act on screen.
Warren and cinematographer Justin Derry craft 4:3 shots with such lyrical beauty that it’s not hard to transport ourselves amid the tension between them. The camerawork becomes far more elaborate near the end, and that’s where our understanding of the rivalry between Porter and Malcolm is at its highest. But, of course, there’s a lot that this movie doesn’t explicitly say. Still, the implicit feelings evoked by Anderson and Rhodes are enough for audiences to understand how the friction started and why Malcolm will never make amends with Porter, even if the latter will go to great lengths to prove he has changed.
As Porter, Rhodes gives the best performance of his career. It’s definitely his best acting role since starring as Adult Chiron in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. Behind his frazzled curly hair is massive torment. Unfortunately, he doesn’t convey it directly to Darious. Still, it slowly takes the better of him when he confronts Malcolm, also impeccably portrayed by Shamier Anderson.
Jayln Hall’s performance in Chinonye Chukwu’s Till lingered in my mind long after the film ended, but his screen time was minimal. In Bruiser, he plays a character with much more emotional complexity and is the centerpiece of why the family is divided. He gets a chance to show his acting skills here in a far better light than in Till, and he knocks it out of the park on every occasion. There are many instances in which we feel sorry for him. Darious is a good kid with no moral and emotional support around him because they keep fighting for attention all the time. It’s emotionally draining for someone to go through these experiences, especially if they live in the middle of it.
Bruiser doesn’t ask many questions regarding those experiences but instead puts the audience at the front and center of its main rivalry between Porter and Malcolm, two individuals who believe they’re doing everything they can to love their son but are doing the exact opposite to support them. The ending is heartbreaking and shows a full-circle moment between Porter and Malcolm, proving how toxic they are for Darious. It’s a challenging movie that ultimately feels rewarding through impeccable performances by its lead cast and staggering visual style. A shame that a few will see it, but those that do will be lauding it for the rest of the year.
Bruiser is now available to stream on Hulu in the United States and on Disney+ internationally.