A young man, Mohammed (Fady Elsayed), idolizes his older brother, Rashid (James Floyd), a macho boxer, and the two are drawn into a world of violence when the latter is radicalized by Islam. The parallels between Sally El Hosaini’s gang-banging melodrama set in London’s tough East End and some aspects of the recent tragic events in Boston seem eerily resonant, especially since they invert the usual expectations about Muslims and terrorism. The Islam that turns Rashid’s world around preaches love, not jihad, and his newfound faith is seen as the solution, not the cause, of the hatred and bloodshed that threatens to consume them.
Had El Hosaini stuck to the simplicity of this theme and not complicated matters with button-pushing subplots, and had she not inflated her elegant, minimal style with awkward flourishes, her film might have burned with the focused intensity of a latter-day “Mean Streets.” Though, to its credit, it inverts stereotypes and at times finds fresh meaning in tired clichés, it falls short on the originality and inspiration needed to make these insights stick.
For example, she at first demonstrates and then dithers away a shrewd understanding of the sexual pathology behind male bad behavior. Young Mohammed, or Mo, is usually seen on the outside looking in, spying on Rashid when the older brother boisterously bonds with his raffish, dope-dealing buddies. Mo even has a grandstand seat on the top tier of the bunk bed while his brother, on the bottom, enthusiastically gets it on with his girlfriend. Mo’s attraction to Rashid’s flashy lifestyle is voyeuristic, even homoerotic, and it might be as much from jealousy as overt concern for his brother’s welfare that Rashid forbids Mo to participate in any of the gang’s activities.
Nonetheless, Rashid relents, sending Mo out for a small drug pickup. It proves a poor decision. Members of the rival gang ambush Mo, grab his stash, and even steal his trainers. Matters escalate until, in one of El Hosaini’s more poetic images, a dog and a man lie dead in the street, their blood mingling.
For both brothers this is a turning point. Mo wants revenge, and grows tight with the gang. But Rashid has had enough. Plus, he’s met someone who introduces him to a world beyond the dead-end grind of drug deals and turf wars. At first a casual drug customer, Sayyid (Saïd Taghmaoui, who co-wrote and stars in Mathieu Kassovitz’s acclaimed 1995 film “La Haine”) arouses curiosity in Rashid and suspicion and hostility in the others. He’s well-heeled, he’s a photographer, and he’s “French” — a Moroccan relocated to London from Paris. “The strong man is the one who can control himself when he is angry,” he tells Rashid, quoting the Prophet. He gives Rashid some books to read, gently interesting him in his faith. He hires him as an assistant, and recognizes that his new friend has a good eye. Perhaps he is saving his soul.
At this point, El Hosaini has approached the eloquence, irony, and ambiguity of other outstanding takes on similar topics, from Udayan Prasad’s similarly titled “My Son the Fanatic” (1997) to Thierry Binisti’s sadly neglected “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” (2010). But then she chooses to up the ante by adding a few more hot-button issues, a few more half-baked plot twists, and what had all the makings of a work of art devolves into an earnest checklist of worthy causes. She might have done these brothers more justice had she given the devil his due.