Netflixable? “Brother (Mon frere)” tells a tale of juvenile justice in France

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The French drama “Mon frère” (“Brother”) is a “boys in juvie” drama, a genre pic about what happens in juvenile detention, or “Youth Custody Center” as the French call it.

It’s a sympathetic portrait about a system built to intervene just before a kid is given up on and sent to prison. And it’s a character study in what one troubled boy endures when he is hurled into this environment after a violent crime.

There’s not much new here, just a couple of plot twists that we kind of see coming. But it’s always interesting to note how another culture handles criminals, especially young ones.

Teddy (MHD) is a teen hurled into this fenced-in “center, not jail,” one of a dozen boys who face six month sentences to see if they are worthy of rehabilitation, or prison. He is challenged the instant he walks in.

“Gimme a cigarette,” (in French with English subtitles). There’s an implied threat behind every action, every remark. “Why so quiet? Spill your guts!”

They want to know why he’s there. The movie uses flashbacks to show us that. We see Teddy’s troubled home where he and his younger brother Andy (Youssouf Gueye) endured the terrors of their brute of a father (Mark Grosy), something even their mother (Neva Kehouane) couldn’t manage. She fled. Andy is being raised by their grandmother, their father’s mother (Lisette Malidor).

Teddy’s new environment is operated by case workers, counselors and teachers, but is run “Lord of the Flies” fashion. The psychotic Enzo (Darren Muselet) lives his days in one long lashing-out. The way the adults tolerate empowers him.

Enzo and Teddy are going to tussle. We know it.

The boys attend classes, get pep talks from the case workers — “I believe in you. I believe you’re the future of France.”

That future is troubled, with racial strife, abused kids and out-of-control sociopaths in the making, from the looks of things.

Teddy is identified as smart, but is resigned to his future. The counselor called Claude (Aïssa Maïga) tries to bring him out of his perpetual crouch. She uses soft-punch boxing sessions to identify what Teddy went through and if a talking cure will change him.

The first thing Teddy protects in the ring is the back of his head. It’s where his father used to hit him.

Teddy stands up to bullying, sort of. Then he uses his smarts to try and outfox the raging Enzo. And then an even bigger brute, Mo (Najeto Injai) shows up and upsets the dynamic.

Mo is all “Look DOWN,” as in “Don’t you DARE make eye contact,” and “No one here impresses me.” Will he be useful to Teddy?

Director Julien Abraham (“Made in China,” “Asphalt Playground”) never quite immerses us in this center and its world of fear and violence. The flashbacks to Teddy’s home life interrupt that.

The counselors tolerate entirely too many challenges to their authority and come off as weak. The power struggle there is the most interesting part of the movie, as it is with any “in the joint” tale. But that’s abandoned for a more fantastical turn of events. Or two.

MHD is a quiet presence in this, allowing most every other actor to overwhelm him in one-on-one scenes. There are reasons for that, but structurally, it knocks the film off balance.

“Brother” is more interesting in presenting a contrasting way of dealing with wayward youth than in showing us new variations on age-old genre tropes. The characters and situations are over-familiar, even if the language and setting are not. That makes for a generally dull, by-the-numbers take on the “boys in prison” genre, with only a couple of novel French twists to recommend it.

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MPAA Rating: TV-MA, violence, nudity

Cast: MHD, Darren Muselet, Aïssa Maïga, Youssouf Gueye, Najeto Injai, Mark Grosy and Neva Kehouane

Credits: Directed by Julien Abraham, script by Julien Abraham, Almamy Kanouté and Jimmy Laporal-Trésor. A BAC/Netflix release.

Running time: 1:36

A BAC/Netflix release.

Running time: 1:36

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