Oliver Twist meets “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” in Ferit Karahan’s sophomore feature, “Brother’s Keeper.” Set in a snowbound boarding school on the eastern edges of Turkey, the film tells the story of a boy desperate to get help for his sick friend yet stymied at every turn by bullying teachers and corrupt administrators. While Karahan (“The Fall From Heaven”) builds the narrative in a resolutely effective manner, ensuring the child’s increasing desperation gets under the audience’s skin, the scenario’s predictability and the stereotyped depiction of the adults impede emotional involvement. Worthy in message and filmmaking prowess, “Brother’s Keeper” is ill-served by its lack of nuanced characters, which could hamper wider distribution.
Institutional coldness typifies everything about this large school situated in a neglected part of the country, staffed by cruel instructors perpetuating an age-old cycle of abuse. Showers are allowed only once a week, the hot water (when there is hot water) a welcome relief from the frigid climate and the broken heating pipes. But when some boys get unruly, the supervisor Hamza (Cansu Fırıncı) punishes the smallest, 11-year-old Memo (Nurullah Alaca), by making him rinse in freezing cold water. The next morning the kid is barely sentient, and his Kurdish friend Yusuf (Samet Yıldız), 12, brings him to the nurse’s station, a mostly empty room with no medical attendant.
The ensuing hours are a nightmare of obstruction and humiliation, as Yusuf tries to avoid punishment for missing classes while being shunted between uncaring adults more interested in protecting their behinds than in getting Memo to a doctor. No one accepts responsibility, including the principal, Burhan Demir (Mahir İpek), who sent the school’s one driver into town on a personal errand and only seeks to preserve his privileges. When the staff finally look in on Memo, by this time catatonic, they feel his forehead, decide he has no temperature, and then engage in recriminations without actually doing anything. All the while Yusuf tries to get the grown-ups to act and help his friend.
At a certain point, when his distress becomes overpowering, Yusuf borrows a phone and calls his mother, who’s happy to hear from him but unreceptive to his plight, lecturing him on her own woes. The scene adds a brief, much-needed other dimension to the boy’s story, painting a damning picture of life for poor Kurdish families who send their kids to state boarding schools to relieve the burden of looking after them, thinking that an education will help their prospects. Yusuf can’t get love from any corner, and the takeaway, especially apparent after that call, is that he’ll become inured to this strangling of affection and passively fall into the cycle of abuse around him.
There’s an anger about “Brother’s Keeper” that adds up on learning that the director himself was an unhappy boarder at just such a school. The pitiful slop the pupils are forced to eat, the absence of any solicitousness, the cruelty each class inflicts on the one below it: This is the stuff of bad memories, transferred to the big screen. The script does a fine job driving the story forward, with Yusuf moving from one unhelpful adult to another, all too self-involved and angry at their stations in life to pay any attention to him — it’s in this way (not to mention Memo’s inexorable decline) that the film has a “Lazarescu” vibe; the presence of a Romanian co-producer appears to be simply a coincidence. Far less successful is the way the grown-ups are so predictable, making Mr. Bumble by comparison seem like a barely exaggerated, three-dimensional figure.
Karahan directs the child actors admirably, and there’s no escaping Yıldız’s dark, expressive eyes, incomprehensibly registering each blow like Robert Bresson’s Balthazar. The production was fortunate in finding the right location, not just the utilitarian school building but the snow, which envelops the property and emphasizes its isolation, creating an unforgiving barrier. Türksoy Gölebeyi’s camera subtly underscores the sense of being trapped and the pupils’ containment within their bare surroundings.