Blood Brother could be seen as the feature-length documentary equivalent of that sequence in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited in which a funeral for a drowned Indian boy is depicted as merely a catalyst for a revelatory flashback for its trio of white privileged brothers. Likewise, while Steve Hoover’s film is mostly set in and around a hostel in Tamil Nadu, India, filled with orphans stricken with AIDS, much of it is focused on what these third-world inhabitants mean to Hoover’s big-hearted best friend, Rocky Braat, who recently decided to move to India in order to help these children. Hoover’s intimate Ross McElwee-like approach to the so-called “issue” documentary is theoretically refreshing, but in practice it turns out to be problematic.
Hoover’s voiceover narration suggests impulses of genuine curiosity, at least toward Rocky’s decision to leave the United States and establish a new life in India of all places. With the generous spirit Rocky exudes, one could see him as yet another idealistic individual who yearns to see the world, somewhat like Christopher McCandless, that tragic real-life figure immortalized by both Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild and Sean Penn’s subsequent film adaptation. Rocky’s backstory, however, offers up deeper root causes for his restlessness. With his father barely a presence as he was growing up, and a mother who drank heavily and went out with abusive boyfriends, he never formed any deep attachments to his family. Combined with his increasing disillusionment from his initial graphic-designer aspirations, all of this freed him up psychologically to cast off all bourgeois shackles and simply explore the options the world had to offer—and when he impulsively decided to visit Chennai, India, came across an orphanage and discovered kids as abandoned and dispossessed as he felt in America, he found his calling.
Rocky’s journey of self-realization undoubtedly has a universal resonance to it that intermittently yields poignant and inspiring moments. But where are the poor Indian kids in all of this? Though Hoover superficially highlights a few of the orphans’ personal stories during his visit (a kid named Surya, in particular, is the focus of arguably the film’s most harrowing sequence, as he teeters on the precipice of death before somehow miraculously surviving), these gestures mostly come off as lip service, these Indian kids and their suffering mere accessories to the supposedly larger drama of this white American finding his purpose in life. Even if Rocky has discovered his reason for going on in life, one wonders how much Hoover seems to have learned from this experience beyond an opportunity to valorize his best friend.