There’s only so much Darious (Jalyn Hall) can carry in “Bruiser,” back at home with his parents Monica (Shinelle Azoroh) and Malcolm (Shamier Anderson) after leaving St. Andrews Academy and unlike other classmates, he’s saddened to have the summer break. His girlfriend at the boarding school is off to Greece with her family and as a scholarship kid, such travel eludes him, making the local river the most exotic getaway he can imagine and when his friends are now elsewhere, he is left to pass the time alone, finding his way into his father’s weight room where he tries to lift far more than he’s capable of, nearly crushing himself with one of the barbells.
It seems like he can’t breathe well before that in Miles Warren’s enthralling drama, based on his short of the same name where the 14-year-old is caught between two worlds and eventually two men who can lay claim to calling themselves his dad when a day out near the docks leads him to Porter (Trevante Rhodes), a stranger whose friendliness takes him by surprise. While Malcolm has no time for Darious in between his job selling used cars and making calls to try to get another year of tuition paid for at St. Andrews when it is too costly for himself to bear, Darious becomes enchanted with Porter, who teaches him how to box after seeing he’s been scrapped up in a fight and seems to have made a pretty decent life for himself away from the world. What Darious doesn’t know is how this life isn’t exactly by choice, all but expelled from town after some incident also involving Malcolm and as he learns more about Porter, both from him and his parents who resist letting him back into their lives, their bond in the present seems like it could’ve been rooted at birth.
Although Warren and co-writer Ben Medina flirt with the question of nature versus nurture, “Bruiser” is particularly intriguing because of what Darious is exposed to by both of the men in his life, with feelings that Malcolm long suppressed to make a life for himself rising to the surface as Porter, who has long acted on his emotions, is suddenly facing the consequences in trying to explain himself to Darious. The two couldn’t be more different as role models for the young man to look up to, but they each have something to admire as well as to avoid and the fact that they were once close in the same place where Darious is coming up may make it seem like there’s a happy medium. However, when these influences are at war with one another, if not manifesting themselves into real-life physical brawls, “Bruiser” ferociously charts Darious’ uncertainty over who to emulate through the increasingly scorching camerawork of cinematographer Justin Derry where the intensity of the colors in the darkening world the character inhabits grow stronger and through shrewd framing allows arguments to carry on when those around Darius can’t stand to be in the same room together, but all take up precious real estate in his thoughts.
“Bruiser,” as a whole, is liable to be equally absorbing for audiences, building towards a well-earned and exquisitely executed climax that honors a story where there can’t be any easy outcome and while Darious’ growing pains are made vivid, few feature debuts show their directors to be as fully formed as Warren, who handles the tricky tonal shifts of someone incrementally losing their innocence with incredible confidence and armed with a magnetic ensemble, the film’s pull is inevitable, but he emerges most assured.