Naturalism does battle with melodrama in Marcel Rasquin gritty soccer tale, set in the slums of Caracas. “Hermano” begins with the discovery by Graciela (Marcela Giron) and her young son Julio of a baby abandoned in a pile of garbage. Though initially reluctant to get involved, Graciela’s moved to take the infant home and raise him as a member of the family. Some fifteen years later, Julio (Eliu Armas) and Daniel (Fernando Moreno) are the stars of the neighborhood football team—the older boy the rough enforcer and the younger an agile, supple scorer—leading their mates toward a slot in the championships, with only a single game remaining. And their coach (who’s also having an affair with Graciela neither lad knows about) has invited a scout from a professional squad to look them over.

But tragedy intervenes when one of Julio’s pals, the hot-tempered team goalie who, like him, is involved with the local crime boss, takes aim against several rival gang members and accidentally shoots Graciela—an act Daniel witnesses but claims not to have, fearing that telling heartbroken, furious Julio the truth will lead him to seek revenge. It’s a sign of the film’s mixture of poignant street story and awkward melodrama that the funeral falls on the very day of the boys’ scheduled tryout for the majors. Though they can make both, Julio’s certainty that Daniel knows more than he’s telling threatens to tear their apart. And they still have their citywide championship to deal with.

The strength of “Hermano” lies in the intense performances of Moreno and Armas, who have an easy camaraderie suggestive of real brotherhood. The on-field action, moreover—as well as a one-on-one contest the brothers engage in toward the close—is choreographed with a real sense of authenticity, and even if the script resorts to the come-from-behind-at-the-last-minute clichés that sports movies so often indulge in, at the close they’re followed by a shocking addition that—while glossed over much too abruptly—shifts the picture from phony triumph to grim moral uncertainty. And the gritty visual style of cinematographer Enrique Aular, combined with Rasquin’s hell-bent pacing, gives the film a gritty, genuine feel. (A scene in which an enraged Julio unwisely confronts the crime boss for information and suffers the consequences is especially powerful in that respect.)

But the overdrawn plot elements too often break the realistic tone. The death of Graciela as she’s carrying a birthday cake in the street and Daniel’s insistence that any pro opportunities include his brother as well as himself come across as manipulative, and added to the mix is an extraneous subplot about a pretty girl that Daniel’s sweet on telling him that she’s pregnant and asking him to accompany her to the clinic for an abortion. (He’s not, it should be emphasized, the father. He’s too much the straight-arrow for that.)

The upshot is that “Hermano” is an uneasy combination of good and bad, which earns a mild recommendation on the strength of the two lead performances and its success in capturing the desperate milieu of Caracas’ teeming underclass.