As a child I once played a game with my little brother: I convinced him to let me tie him up, put him in a closet, and turn out the lights. It was only when I heard his terrified screams that I realized what an awful thing I’d done and pulled him out. As I untied him I can still remember my shock, guilt and awe at my own idiotic capabilities.
My brother survived the ordeal (he’s now 25 and living in Brooklyn), I was deservedly punished by our parents, and the event soon faded into memory. Until this short brought it all rushing back.
With Big Man, director Julius Onah has crafted an unflinching look at the dark ambiguities of brotherhood. It’s a seldom-visited subject that has nonetheless produced some memorable fiction. Pillars of the “Cain and Abel” genre include The Godfather Part 2, The Tree of Life, and Goodbye, My Brother, John Cheever’s short fiction masterpiece.
Big Man was shot in Nigeria as part of Focus Features’ Africa First program. It’s a thorny and wise coming-of-age tale about Uzoma, a boy who likes to play dangerous games with his little brother Chize.
Filmmakers generally avoid working with children (like animals, liquids or republicans) because of the intense difficulty it entails: shorter shooting days, unruly parents, and miniscule attention spans. That Onah was able to overcome these obstacles with not one but two untrained child actors is a testament to his abilities as a director. The lead performances held me like a tractor-beam, locking me in place until the film’s bittersweet ending.
Onah’s writing shows an equally deep understanding of child psychology. At the film’s beginning, Uzoma backs away from a schoolyard argument. Later, in a classic example of transference, he decides to play a little game with his brother Chize. It’s simple; all Chize has to do is stand on a chair, put his neck in a noose, then wait for Uzoma to kick out the chair and rescue him. What could possibly go wrong?
You’ll have to watch the film to find out.
Onah has already made a mark on the independent film scene as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 Faces. He’s currently in development on God Particle at Paramount Insurge, with J.J. Abrams producing. I have no doubt we’ll be hearing more from him soon.