Two sins weigh heavily on Miles Warren’s Bruiser: The broader movie industry’s enduring ignorance of Trevante Rhodes’ galactic star power, and streaming culture’s capacity for muffling new talent. Rhodes’ screen radiance can’t help shining no matter what he’s in, or how long he’s actually in it. (See Gerard McMurray’s Burning Sands.) In Warren, he’s found a director capable of harnessing his charisma, but in Hulu he’s found a platform too small for the scope of Warren’s feature debut, made with such assurance that it scarcely reads as such.
Plenty of directors go half of their careers or longer without making a movie that lands as hard as Bruiser, either emotionally or aesthetically. It’s a sign of Warren’s potential that this is his first picture out the gate, and that his understanding of Rhodes’ persona is matched only by Barry Jenkins, whose Moonlight would make a fine double feature with Bruiser; they’re both movies about dads in disarray, masculinity in crisis, and a Black teen under strain from wanting resolution in the former while struggling with the latter. Bruiser, however, feels like it could only have been made this far into Rhodes’ career, with seven years of growth and experience in his rearview—perfect for playing a character stitched together from guilt and longing.
Rhodes plays Porter, one of Bruiser’s two father figures, a drifter holed up in a houseboat who takes 14-year-old Darious (Jalyn Hall) under his wing after the kid gets in a scrap with a supposed friend. Stress is Porter’s oxygen, but he breathes out cool. Darious is captivated by Porter: His easygoing philosophy, his gentle demeanor, his shaggy dreadlocks, his Vanson motorcycle jacket, emblazoned with the human skeletal system. He cuts a sharp contrast to Malcolm (Shamier Anderson), Darious’ dad, who’s like a grizzly bear stuffed into khakis. Malcolm is strict. He’s square. He loves Darious, but like far too many men raising sons, his listening skills are virtually nil, which makes Porter an even more appealing alternative.
The movie gives Darious the uncomfortable task of choosing whose example to follow, with his mother, Monica (Shinelle Azoroh), shunted off to the sidelines; contemporary culture criticism’s enforced virtue demands Bruiser be held accountable for failing to spare her more screentime, but frankly, Monica’s role in the story reflects her likely role in a real-life version of this same scenario. Machismo is exclusive. It pushes women out of conversations, especially when the stakes involve male identity and are thus high. Monica tries to intervene as a tempering force between Darious, Malcolm, and Porter, but she’s overpowered by their combined testosterone levels. Darious is just a boy; self-control isn’t his strong suit. Malcolm and Porter are adults, but they’re wrestling with their own inner boys, and, as it turns out, their shared past. Put bluntly, Monica is out of her depth, which is the worst place a mother can be in when trying to save her baby’s soul.
Bruiser maintains her presence, whether physically, with doors slamming in her face and her husband, son, and Porter each holding her at a distance from their conflict, or symbolically, with her favorite song, Otis Redding’s “Cigarettes and Coffee” functioning as a chorus and a coda for Warren’s drama. The film makes Monica’s perseverance part of its foundation, alongside male pride and ego. This is a study in manliness, specifically the kind of man Darious wants to be, and more than that the kind of man he’s likely to become according to his chief influences. The indecision over his self-actualization taxes Darious beyond his breaking point, expressed by Warren and cinematographer Justin Derry through a 4:3 aspect ratio and prioritization of close-ups. Bruiser is suffocating. In certain shots, like a motorcycle ride that recalls Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels, the proximity produces tenderness and love absent elsewhere in the film. But Porter and Malcolm both take up a lot of space, both physically and in the boy’s psyche. Darious has little room to stop, think and regroup.
Similarly, Warren’s craftsmanship keeps the audience from swallowing a breath. He’s a merciless filmmaker, deeply considerate of his choices in staging and casting. He knew what he was doing when he hired Rhodes. Of course Darious wants to hang out with Porter; he’s smooth as hell. But he represents male repentance in a particularly enlightened way: Having hurt people in the past, Porter is too aware that rage is temporary, remorse is forever, and that the sooner Darious learns this lesson, the safer he’ll be.
Rhodes carries the burden of Porter’s shame with the dignified ease of one who’s moved on and forgiven himself for all his salad-days trespasses but one, involving a revelation that upends Bruiser’s perspective about 30 minutes into the movie. The question is whether or not Malcolm has moved on, and whether Darious, by consequence of his relationships with Malcolm and Porter, can move forward. Warren gives a definitive answer as Bruiser ends, but incorporates it into a modern Black American tragedy.
Director: Miles Warren
Writer: Miles Warren, Ben Medina
Starring: Jalyn Hall, Trevante Rhodes, Shamier Anderson, Shinelle Azoroh, Ava Ryback
Release Date: February 24, 2023 (Hulu)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.