My Brothers, a coming-of-age tale set over Halloween weekend 1987 that follows three young siblings as they make their way to the Irish seaside to find a replacement watch for their dying father, on its surface bears all the hallmarks of a Shane Meadows film. So it’s no surprise that the movie marks the directorial debut of Paul Fraser, a frequent writing collaborator of Meadows. Unfortunately, like another Tribeca Film Festival selection, sex & drugs & rock & roll by Mat Whitecross, co-director of Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo, it’s also in dire need of the auteur half of the partnership at its helm.
Seventeen-year-old Noel, played with lovely nuance by novice actor Timmy Creed, sets Will Collins’s over-the-top script in motion when (in a metaphorical effort to stop time?) he takes a cheap watch from his half-conscious father’s wrist. He then gets in a fight, which leads to both the watch and his wrist being smashed. But because the sentimental trinket had been won at an arcade in Ballybunnion, Noel is then forced to find a way to get to the tiny town, which leads to his borrowing his employer’s bread van without permission. Unfortunately, though conveniently for the story, he can’t shift the vehicle’s gears with his injured hand, so he enlists the help of his pudgy, 11-year-old brother Paudie (Paul Courtney). Their seven-year-old, Star Wars-obsessed sibling Scwally (TJ Griffin) also comes along for the ride after threatening to tell their mum if they don’t take him with them.
In other words, like Meadows or that other critics’ U.K. favorite, Andrea Arnold, Fraser is interested in small character studies involving universal situations set in a specific era. Unlike Meadows and Arnold, however, Fraser puts the cart before the horse, or rather, the script before the characters. The problem with My Brothers is that it’s made up of broad ideas in lieu of believable human beings. Other than the fact that Paudie likes to fart and burp and that Scwally takes his light saber everywhere, we get no sense of who these kids are beyond run-of-the-mill working class lads. (It doesn’t help that the child actors, neither of whom have appeared in a film before, seem constantly, self-consciously aware that they’re on camera.) Contrasting Noel, who understands too much (the weight of responsibility to be the man in the family hanging over everything, even his crush on a classmate), with his younger brothers, who can’t grasp the magnitude of death, is worthwhile in theory. But combine this with actors who lack chemistry, and characters that are forced to fit into calculated plot developments rather than leading a story that unfolds organically, and the film feels as cheap as that dying father’s watch.
What’s left is a series of sight gags and quirky scenes that don’t build upon one another, but are instead haphazardly stacked on top of each other, like the three pairs of 3D glasses that Scwally wears to watch a Halloween flick on TV. “Pull my finger,” Paudie tells Scwally, and the van’s tire goes flat. The vehicle’s side mirror falls off and its doors stick a la Little Miss Sunshine. When they pass a funeral on the road, the director, in a fit of uninspired editing, cuts back and forth between the procession and the solemn siblings watching it. A scene with sparklers seems like an outtake from an R.E.M. video. A pederast unbelievably appears out in the middle of nowhere. The brothers encounter a dying whale. By the time they reach their destination, the entire journey feels so designed alternately for laughs and deep drama that Noel’s grabbing for that replacement watch with a robotic hand in a coin-operated game holds no tension whatsoever. Lacking a subtle director to flesh out the story and breathe life into these characters, it just seems like a bloody lot of trouble to go to for a trinket.
My Brothers will play on April 23, 27, and 30 as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. For more information click here.