Queer Coming-of-Age Film ‘Half Brother’ Is Finally Available Outside of Brazil
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Eliane Coster’s film Half Brother (Meio Irmão), her 2018 award-winning directorial debut, is finally being released outside Brazil. Like many South American films before it — Hector Babenco’s Pixote and Walter Salles’ Central Station spring to mind — the film portrays the struggles of the impoverished young in the urban wastelands. Forty years on from Babenco’s masterpiece, Coster shows us how little has changed in the still-developing country.
“These young people coming of age in developing countries’ metropolises,” the director has stated of her film Half Brother, “find they’ve got pre-scripted roles in the machinery of consumption and media. Space for individuality and the capacity to make impact on society have become quite unattainable. Lack of hope in the future and of faith in democratic institutions confine this generation within a vast dystopia. What is left is a state of suspension, a persistent hope for things that aren’t even on the horizon.”
If that sounds bleak, well, it is, though it’s not hopeless.
Sandra (Natalia Molina) is one of those affectless, perpetually bored-looking teens with a permanent sulk plastered to her face. Her mother, Suely, has been missing for days. The landlord is circling the apartment like a vulture waiting to evict the underage and unsupervised girl. Her estranged father is ignoring her calls. And she moves like a ghost through her day at school, her only interaction being with her horny (and still virginal) friend Giovana (Eduarda Andrade) and a boy that she hate-loves, Filé (André Andrade). When the apartment utilities are shut off, she breaks into a local dwelling for food, shelter and running water, until one day she passes out on a bed and is woken up by the owners.
Don’t worry — Sandra isn’t going to jail to stave off lesbian predators. Turns out this place belongs to her half-brother, Jorge (Diego Avelino), and his father, Wilson (Francisco Gomes). Sandra and Jorge share the same mother, but he’s long moved past Suely’s limited involvement in his life. He’s busy working with his dad as a security technician or hanging out with his best friend, Rui (Dico Oliveira), a tattoo artist who just happens to be Jorge’s secret crush. Francisco allows Sandra to stay with them until Suely turns back up; the half-siblings mostly antagonize each other yet step up for support in a crisis.
Half Brother doesn’t tie up its conflicts in pretty, tidy bows. More than once a pair of characters (first Jorge and Rui, then Sandra and Filé) discuss getting out of São Paulo, but for what? The idea of escape is all they need; the reality is that there’s nowhere for them to go.
Jorge’s sexuality, while still hidden (he seems to be in the process of figuring it out), isn’t a dramatic device (though an act of gay bashing early in the film that Jorge captures on his phone is). There’s the requisite amount of angst, but nothing excessive (Avelino, with his heavy lids and slow burn, pines remarkably). And though Suely is the character that sets the plot into motion, she’s never present. The film begins and ends with her absence, and the only matter that changes is Sandra’s reaction to it. She still misses her mother in a way that Jorge hasn’t in a long while, but she doesn’t need her anymore.
Coster’s film is a modest take on kitchen sink realism; an assured and restrained piece of work that doesn’t have the muckraking spirit of Babenco’s Pixote or the operatic emotional groundswell of Salles’s Central Station. What it has is integrity, two fine central performances, and it imparts the potential this fledgling artist has well within her reach.