Son of Egyptian immigrants Mo (Elsayed) idolises his older brother Rashid (Floyd), following him into gang life on their East End estate. But when Rashid decides he wants out for reasons he cant share even with Mo fraternal ties are sorely tested.
It seems like every week another drab, Hackney-set tale of petty criminals perforating each other with bullet-holes lands in our cinemas, running on the already foul fumes of Guy Ritchie’s heyday. So when one of them arrives on our screens via festival premieres at Sundance and Berlin, chances are it must offer a variation on the familiar guns-and-geezers formula. That’s certainly true of Sally El Hosaini’s keenly observed, visually inventive debut feature, though its opening beats are decidedly familiar.
Stories of brothers alternately united and separated by the underworld have been a Hollywood staple since before movies could talk, so the path for naive schoolboy Mo (Fady Elsayed) and his rebellious, handsome older brother Rashid (James Floyd) seems set. Indeed, for its first act, only some interesting ethnic detailing separates the narrative from limp recent Adam Deacon effort Payback Season, as Rashid tries and fails to prevent Mo from becoming a drug-runner for the dangerous gang in which he himself is a high-level operator.
Just as you’ve set your watch by the inevitable pattern of corruption and redemption, however, El Hosaini steers her film into far riskier territory for this meat-and-potatoes genre, as sexuality becomes a touchier concern for Mo and Rashid than the macho mechanics of gang life. James Floyd is magnetic as he navigates Rashid’s conflicting lifestyles; Letitia Wright, meanwhile, is a luminous discovery as Aisha, the orthodox Muslim neighbour who keeps Mo’s conscience on an even keel. In keeping with her film’s unexpected tonal shift, El Hosaini’s filmmaking balances sharp urban texture with more intimate poetic flourishes, as her camera seeks light and beauty even in the least welcoming tower-block environs.
Already a compelling gangland saga, this vastly promising debut turns into something more surprising when social prejudice becomes the characters weapon of choice. If that sounds too much like a lecture, El Hosainis voice remains crisp, cool and consist