The very talented Jalyn Hall (who played Emmett Till in “Till” last year) plays Darious, a 14-year-old who struggles with his disciplinarian father Malcolm (Shamier Anderson) and mother Monica (Shinelle Azoroh, so excellent on Apple’s wildly underrated “Swagger”). Darious is at that age when you start to discover that your values and worldview may not be the same as your father’s. Malcolm seems like a well-meaning father, but he also often fails to listen to Darious, and arguably sometimes takes his work struggles—and the difficulty he’s having paying for his son’s private school—out on the boy. It doesn’t help that Darious is also being bullied at school by boys who also don’t know what it means to be a man.
Warren then drops a melodrama into this tumultuous time of an adolescent’s life. After rough-housing gets intense in the way it sometimes happens with dumb boys, Darious finds himself running to a nearby river, where he happens upon a drifter named Porter (Trevante Rhodes), who begins to mentor the kid, teaching him stuff his dad has no interest in. It turns out—and this isn’t a spoiler because it’s revealed very early—that Porter is Darious’ real father. Monica chose Malcolm when they were young, and all three have secrets about that era and a violent act that shaped all of their lives. Of course, they won’t remain secrets for long.
There’s a certain predestination to “Bruiser” in that “the father who lives by the river will let you down” is a lesson that anyone who has seen a movie will know our protagonist will have to learn. But Warren has a remarkable emotional immediacy, one that he brings out with his cast. Hall was effective in his limited screen time in “Till,” but he shows his range here, finding truth in a familiar set-up. Like so many young men, Darious isn’t even sure what he’s looking for from Porter, but Hall makes it believable. He just wants a new male influence in his life, someone willing to listen to him instead of just pushing him. And so we go on Darious’ journey with him, a trip that’s greatly enhanced by fluid camerawork from Justin Derry that frames him in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which makes the adolescent pressure on him feel even greater by the tightness of the image.