It’s the storytelling rather than the story that distinguishes this first feature from Arlington, Texas filmmaker Will Canon. “Brotherhood” is just a variant on the old chestnut about a fraternity initiation gone terribly wrong, and in its later stages the implausibility quotient increases exponentially. But it’s told so tautly that you’re swept up in it nevertheless, and only afterward do misgivings arise.
The sense of déjà vu is accentuated by the fact that Trevor Morgan stars as Sigma Zeta Chi pledge Adam, whose pal Kevin (Lou Taylor Pucci) is shot during a hazing test engineered by tyrannical chapter president Frank (Jon Foster). The prank involves the pledges robbing convenience stores to prove their dedication; but the twist is that another frat brother is assigned to head them off before they actually go through with it. Unfortunately, in Kevin’s case things go awry, and he’s shot by clerk Mike (Arlan Escarpeta). The rest of the film consists of the domineering Frank trying desperately to cover up what’s happened, refusing to take Kevin to the hospital and scheming to tie up all the loose ends to avoid the truth coming to light. In the process his underlings will even kidnap and torture Mike. The only one who stands up to him is Adam, who goes along for awhile but eventually insists on doing the right thing. (I won’t go into detail about the plot swerves to avoid spoiling the surprises.)
Morgan is actually quite good as the conflicted hero (as is Foster as his steely nemesis), but his presence may remind one of another film in which he played at a considerably younger age—Jacob Aaron Estes’ “Mean Creek” (2004), about a bullied kid who, along with his brother and friends, plots revenge on his tormentor. There Morgan was hardly the moral center of the film—he played the kid’s older brother, who actually comes up with the idea, though he has second thoughts about it. But the fact that he’s at the center of a film that comes off like a college-age version of a narrative with a similar emotional arc can be a mite off-putting. It’s as though the poor fellow had graduated from high school only to find himself in the same predicament. Of course, we’ve seen plenty of other pictures about fraternity rituals that go bad, too, but Morgan hasn’t been in them, and this one is cleverer that most of them anyway, with an especially nifty closing twist.
The other problem with “Brotherhood” is that the plot turns in the last third lack the ironclad logic of those earlier on, especially when Mike makes a demand for his cooperation that frankly strains credulity. But as director Canon adroitly camouflages the lapses, pushing the story ahead at a breakneck pace that carries you along and staging the individual scenes with a dexterity many more experienced helmers might envy. (One has to credit cinematographer Michael Fimognari for his contribution to the mood as well, and the other technical credits—though hardly slick—are all more than respectable for an obviously low-budget effort.)
Canon’s other achievement—a considerable one in a movie like this—is to draw convincing performances from his supporting cast, who actually look and sound like frat types. It’s all part of a milieu that seems natural and authentic, something that college-based pictures rarely manage.
“Brotherhood” has flaws, but as a first-time directorial effort (Canon is a graduate of the NYU Film School, and this is an expansion of the short film “Roslyn” he made there), it’s an impressive debut, dramatically potent for a filmmaker of any age and experience.