Twenty-year-old Pavel has come back from the war in Chechnya with visible and invisible scars. He has lost an eye, and believes he is surrounded by menacing "spooks" (dukhi, which is also a term used by Afghan and Chechen war veterans for the indigenous enemy fighters in those conflicts). Pavel arrives in Moscow not only to be fitted for an artificial eye ("I'd like a diamond one," he says), but also to find his father, Iulik, a physicist-turned-popular-science-author with a happy, middle-class, nuclear-family life who is unaware that an adulterous fling two decades earlier had produced a son.
Iulik's family and friends react to Pavel's arrival in a variety of ways that comprise a microcosm of societal attitudes towards traumatized veterans, a contradictory mix of gratitude, aversion, admiration, and fear. Iulik himself is initially in denial that he is Pavel's father, but eventually defends Pavel's increasingly dissociative behavior, ostensibly out of patriotism as much as paternalism. Iulik's wife, Rita, at first urges her husband to take responsibility for his progeny, but soon demands that Iulik leave the care of Pavel to a military institution, out of fear for the safety of her own children. Their teenaged son, Egor, is mistrustful of Pavel from the beginning. Only Ania, their young daughter, accepts him completely, an ongoing allusion to the scene from James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) in which the misunderstood monster bonds with (though soon accidentally kills [!]) a little girl, as well as to beauty-and-the-beast narratives more generally. Another association with Mary Shelley's gothic classic is more abstract: the tendency of scientific progress (including military science) to outpace a society's moral development, with often tragic consequences. The film's title also evokes Aleksei Balabanov's Brother (1997), whose protagonist is another Chechen War vet struggling to find a place in civilian society. Balabanov's Danila Bagrov, however, is able to do so only within the emotionally superficial confines of the action genre. In this respect, the first Rambo film, First Blood, attempts to negotiate a generic position somewhere between Todorovskii's contemporary drama and Balabanov's shoot-em-up.
In its complex engagement with the uneasy relationship between the front and the home front, My Stepbrother Frankenstein follows Todorovskii's other cinematic contemplations of the experience of misfits in Russian society: Jews (Love), the hearing-impaired (Land of the Deaf), and the less-definably anomalous Myshkin in Dostoevsky's The Idiot, a mini-series produced by Todorovskii in 2003.