"My Brother the Devil" is not at all the film I was expecting. And that's both a good thing and a not-so-good thing.

It's a pleasant surprise because Egyptian-Welsh writer-director Sally El Hosaini, in her feature film debut, avoids telling an easy but often overwrought sort of story about immigrants struggling to leave their history behind them. But she tries so hard to make her story familiar enough to draw in viewers, but unexpected enough to disconcert them, that the film doesn't quite live up to its initial promise. Simply put, Hosaini stuffed her debut too full of everything she wanted to say about a certain immigrant experience. The result is a nearly two-hour film with ideas enough for multiple movies, but not enough depth for a single excellent one.

Rashid (James Floyd) and Mo (Fady Elsayed) have been navigating the streets of London's gang-heavy Hackney district quite differently. The British-born sons of Egyptian immigrants have a complicated relationship that's marked mostly by Mo's admiration of his older brother. Rash is a relatively high-level gang member who makes far more dealing drugs than he would if he got the real job his father keeps pushing him to get. But he refuses to let Mo into the gang. He wants his smart younger brother to finish school and go on to college and live the life no one in their family yet has.

On screen
'My Brother the Devil'
» Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
» Starring: James Floyd, Fady Elsayed, Said Taghmaoui
» Director: Sally El Hosaini
» Rating: Not rated (adult themes)
» Running time: 111 minutes

But the seemingly clear paths of both boys come to a fork when the inevitable violence reaches Rash's gang. The death of a friend upends Rash's easy gangster lifestyle. He befriends his dead pal's photographer buddy, Sayyid (Said Taghmaoui), who gives Rash a job -- and the writings of the prophet Muhammad.

Mo is hurt that Rash spends all his time talking politics with his new friend. "Why are you reading a book?" he asks Rash one night in disgust. Mo takes twisted revenge by doing the one thing he knows Rash doesn't want him doing -- getting a well-paying but dangerous job in the gang.

Hosaini has found an excellent set of young talent that puts us right into the mean streets of inner London. Taghmaoui is a veteran French actor you might recognize from English-language films such as "Three Kings." The two stars have far fewer film credits, though it certainly doesn't show. They know how to portray characters caught between an old world they've never really known and a new world shaped by it. Mo refuses to eat bacon-flavored crisps a non-Muslim friend offers him -- but he has no problem guzzling beer.

"The strong man is the one who can control himself when he is angry," Sayyid tells Rash, who is thinking about avenging his friend's death. But Rash responds with a quotation of his own, pointing out that if our destinies are "already written," it doesn't matter what choices he makes -- free will is simply an illusion.

Both Rash and Mo will soon learn that it might be the most important illusion they can have. In the meantime, fate via that fork in the road will make their difficult lives quite tough indeed.