As a boy, Renato Murguia lost his dad.
But his father, Flavio, didn’t die. He just left, heading from Mexico to America in search of work. The Mexican economy had tanked, and the only way to keep a family afloat was for one parent to go find work and send money back to the parent who stayed behind.
The problem was, after promising to return as soon as possible, Flavio never did.
Now, years later, Renato has a chip on his shoulder. He’s an engineer in charge of his own aviation company. And he couldn’t care less about his louse of a missing father—the man who made his young life so miserable. In fact, if you dare bring up anything that has to do with America, you can expect to receive a few angry words from this bitter son.
Just days before his marriage, however, Renato gets a call from that hated place full of ignorant and arrogant people. It seems his estranged father is dying and wants desperately to see his son one last time. And wouldn’t you know it, Renato’s fiancée Pamela insists that he go see the man. She is convinced that the only way Renato will ever find closure and healing will be to see his ailing dad one last time.
And so, Renato jets off to Chicago—intending to check in and then return as quickly as possible.
Soon after touching down, however, Renato’s plans are upended. It turns out that his father had another American family. And Renato has a half-brother: a revoltingly typical ugly American named Asher. Oh, and as Flavio dies he gives Renato and Asher an envelope and asks them to set off on a quest together in search of someone named Eloise.
“It’s all about Eloise,” the weak and dying man says. “All you need do is deliver this. It will all make sense.”
Renato remembers that Flavio always was one for games and mysteries. And now, with his last words, he’s trying to send his abandoned son off on one last bit of nonsense, something the angry young man has no intention of following through on. But after calling home, his fiancée, Pamela, once again encourages him to do as his father asked. There are five days yet before their wedding. What could one more day hurt?
So Renato stays. He climbs into a car with his completely dreadful half-brother and heads off on some puzzle-solving idiocy. And he’s pretty sure he’s going to regret it.
Once again, Renato moans, this absent father will likely make his life a misery!
Flavio hasn’t always made the right choices. But by movie’s end—and by the time his sons finish their puzzling quest together—we see that he loved his “boys” in his own way. And he tries to make that clear to each of them. “I made both of you feel that you were not the sons I wanted. But in truth, I was not the father you deserved,” he tells them in a recorded message. (It would have, of course, been better if he’d done so while still alive and in person. But that obvious fact is brushed over.)
The film makes strong statements about accepting people who we seen as different or “strange.” Asher, as well as Renato’s soon-to-be stepson, Emilio, are both odd ducks who don’t seem to deal logically or intelligently with the world around them. Renato eventually returns home with a deeper understanding that you can find things to love and value in everyone, if you take the time to look for them. Half Brothers also extends that acceptance metaphor to prejudices we may have against other races or cultures.
Ultimately, we’re told that family, for all of its flaws and failings, can be a source of support and something of great value if only we invest a little effort. And forgiveness needs to be a key factor in that effort.
During their travels, Renato and Asher drive by a small-town sign that states, “Guns, God & Guts Made America.”
The clues to Flavio’s quest eventually lead Renato and Asher to a Catholic Convent where they meet several nuns who help them out (and who, we learn, also helped Flavio in a significant way years before).
Asher strips to his boxer shorts after inhaling ethanol gas.
[Spoiler Warning] We find out, through a flashback, part of the reason Flavio never returned home: He had a sexual affair with an American woman, and she got pregnant. (We see that woman asleep on a bed dressed only in a slip, implying that they slept together after a party.)
While trying to get back to Mexico, Flavio is mugged and badly beaten in a public bathroom. We see him later, lacerated and covered in blood. It’s also said that the U.S. Border Patrol is unnecessarily careless (and sometimes purposely negligent) with illegal Mexican immigrants caught at the U.S./Mexican border.
We see people manhandled and large numbers of people crammed into small cells. And when Flavio gets sick after a long stretch of incarceration, the officers simply take him out and dump him by the side of the road to die, washing their hands of him.
There’s also quite a bit of “comedic” violence in the mix here as well that’s played for humor. Men shoot at Renato and Asher with shotguns after Asher steals something from them. And another group intends to beat up Asher after he gambles with them and loses. (Renato ends up punched and knocked around in this case. And both Renato and Asher are pelted with thrown bottles.) Later a group of rednecks find Asher in their moonshine cabin and beat him up. He comes out with bruises and a bloodied split lip.
Asher and Renato are always at each other’s throats, too. Sometimes that’s quite literal, as they wrestle and beat on each other on the ground or roll around in the dust by the side of the road.
Renato’s soon-to-be stepson, Emilio, has an odd connection with violence as well. For example, he wears a gory mask that features a bloody axe wedged into its noggin. He also comes after his mother with an actual chainsaw, though she calmly disarms him as if it’s a common occurrence.
Two f-words and 10 s-words join multiple uses of “d–n,” “a–hole,” “h—” and “b–ch.” We hear a couple of crude references to male genitalia. Both God’s and Jesus’ names are misused more than a dozen times total (including three combinations of the former with “d–n”).
Renato and Asher drink beer together. A flashback scene depicts Flavio giving his 10-year-old son a beer in an attempt to show he’s a “good” dad. Renato and Asher run out of gas and try to turn “moonshine” into ethanol. The escaping gasses, however, cause them both to get fairly loopy. Asher passes out from the gas. And later, Renato uses another batch of gaseous ethanol to knock out a roomful of men.
Flavio and a female friend get tipsy at a party full of heavy drinkers.
Asher steals a goat and makes all sorts of irrational choices that earn the ire of nearly everyone he encounters. People throw around hurtful labels such as “freak” and “weirdo.”
Director Luke Greenfield has constructed a multicultural, multilingual pic here that seems plagued by multiple personalities. Sometimes it feels like an endearing, family-focused drama. At other times it plays out like a broadly ridiculous odd-couple comedy. Still other times, it seems intent upon being a serious message movie.
This story’s heartwarming moments blend with preposterous nonsense. Sweet statements of forgiveness get buried beneath foul-mouthed profanities. Things are given, other things stolen. Lessons are learned; at the same time, stupidity is celebrated.
I’ll be honest, this is the kind of film you want to like. You want to care about its main character’s struggles. But when you add in all of its often diametrically opposed content issues, Half Brothers never coalesces into a satisfying, family-friendly whole.
At best, Half Brothers perhaps feels as if it’s about half empty.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.