It ain't 'Old School.' Rather than celebrate the oft-demeaning, sometimes out-of-control pledge rituals of college fraternities, indie thriller 'Brotherhood' begins with screaming, shouting and sheer panic. We're shoved blindfolded into a van along with three young pledges, who are facing the dark side of an insanely intense initiation. One by one, the pledges are given a gun and told to rob a convenience store. Very quickly, the prank goes horribly wrong, and the frat brothers careen from one crisis to the next, testing the limits of brotherly bonding as they desperately try to dodge the authorities.
'Brotherhood' won Audience Awards at SXSW and the Dallas International Film Festival last year and will be available via Video On Demand systems nationwide starting on Friday. It opens theatrically in Dallas on Friday (it was filmed nearby in Arlington) and in Los Angeles next week. The cast includes Jon Foster as the bullying frat leader (pictured above, left), Trevor Morgan as a conscience-stricken pledge (pictured above, right), Lou Taylor Pucci as a very trusting pledge, and Arlen Escarpeta as a convenience store clerk who gets caught up in the madness.
Director Will Canon, who also wrote the script with Doug Simon, insists that he doesn't have anything against fraternities. He's had friends who loved the experience and others who had the opposite reaction. "It just depends on the people," he says. Pucci relates that a lot of his friends have gone through similar experiences as those depicted in the film; one was branded by his fraternity.
At Canon's suggestion, Foster led two nights of voluntary hazing for some of the cast members before filming began. Foster, who hasn't attended college, got input from friends. "The overall goal was to put ourselves in the mind set, the pack mentality," Foster says. Hazing included wrapping "pledges" in cellophane and covering them in bird seed and condiments, playing human Battleship with the blindfolded actors (losers got egged), and other antics involving underpants, car washes and breast exams.
The upshot was that the actors felt "like brothers," according to Foster and Pucci. Not everyone had that brotherly feeling, though. Escarpeta, who roomed with Morgan on location but wasn't involved in the hazing, remembers that Morgan came back "hating" Foster or, more accurately, Frank, the character he was playing. Frank comes across to many viewers as the villain of the piece, but Foster doesn't see it that way. "He had to believe that he was trying to do good. ... In his own mind, it's justifiable."
While the film explores broader themes of fraternity and friendship, it doesn't shy away from the more troubling (and narrow) prejudices of some of the frat boys, which comes into relief when Escarpeta, the only African American character, threatens the bonds of brotherhood. In today's world at large, Escarpeta acknowledges that racial lines are "definitely drawn," but feels that in the film, it has more to do with the extremely stressful situation that develops. "I didn't see any one character as good or bad. I thought they were just crazy ridiculous circumstances. ... In that 'pack mentality,' things just come out, whether you're black or white."
Canon says the script's goal was to show that no one is perfect; everyone is compromised in some way. "That's what it means to be a human being. We all compromise ourselves to some degree." As far as the racial aspect, Canon, who grew up in Arlington, remembers people telling him: "'You know I'm not racist, but ...' and then that line is followed by something that's completely racist. You don't get an out" that way.
Producer Chris Pollack says that raising the financing independently allowed for complete creative freedom. Still, they had their "blueprint" in advance (the script) and stuck to their plan, rarely deviating from a production standpoint, making it possible to get all the shots they needed from a storytelling perspective.
Like its characters, 'Brotherhood' is not a perfect film, but it's a highly effective, jolting and dark ride that plays especially well with an audience.
Here's the trailer: