Blood Brothers begins with the narrative that can make conscientious viewers wince: Young white American sets off for the third world to find – wait for it – authenticity.
Oh great. Another flick about a self-absorbed white kid who becomes a better person, and the third world natives – in this case, Indian orphans living in a home just for orphans with HIV – are just props the white person uses to achieve some sort of anti-materialism nirvana. (Blind Side, anyone?)
Well, Blood Brother shatters that expectation. To dust.
Subject Rocky Braat isn’t the over-indulged upper-middleclass American kid we’ve come to expect. He’s a soulful, unmoored young man who was raised by his grandparents after his mother vanished into addiction and his dad started over with a new woman and not much discernible regard for Rocky or Rocky’s sister.
Braat goes to India, not to find himself, but to start over and find a home. Visa troubles hit and he’s suddenly back in Pittsburg with best friend and filmmaker Steve Hoover. Braat is visibly disconnected from his old urban life, antsy to get back to India and the orphans he’s come to adore and care for at a spare orphanage where they basically wait to die.
Hoover decides to make the trip back with Braat, still unconvinced that his best friend has made a rational choice.
Hoover plunges the viewer immediately into the crisis of children living with a terminal virus and little access to medicine. The film is a punishing one, depicting the death of a Indian girl as Braat and Hoover race toward a hospital the girl’s father holding her as he clings to Braat’s motorbike. (More than one child’s remains are filmed, sans exploitation.)
Hoover then follows Braat back to his new life, a hardscrabble place without running water, sewage treatment and comforts. Braat confesses to the first shocks he felt – disgust at the sticky illness of the orphans, the numbness of losing children who adore him so much and so immediately that they call him Rockyanna, “brother Rocky” and the gut-punch of stories about widows with HIV who live nearby with their children. Hoover never flinches from the filth and the casual, brutal fist of the blight that is third world HIV-AIDS.
Something makes all of this watchable: the children. Even in their loneliness, their pain and their uncertainty, the orphans are incandescent. Smiles and laughter are almost constant, and Braat is almost never without a gaggle of kids clinging to him – from neck, waist arms and legs. Hoover gradually finds a flowering of joy in Braat himself.
Braat eventually marries an Indian woman, but the authenticity he searches for finally emerges in his relationship with the young orphan Surya. The boy falls gravely ill – lips falling off of his face, eyes sealed shut with infection and body peppered with sores. Braat stays at his bedside, mopping up the most offensive stuff a diseased body produces. He sings to the boy, walks him about and snatches him back from the edge of death.
Rocky Braat began his journey as an American kid who never felt connected. He arrives at the next chapter as a husband, a father and a unordained priest who gives the least of these a good death.