WRiter director Elegance Bratton makes a promising, passionate narrative debut with The Inspection, a film loosely inspired by his own story as a gay man enlisting in the military, a grueling, self-flagellating trial for someone who had only experienced his sexuality as punishment.
His previous film, the documentary Pier Kids about three homeless LGBTQ+ youth in Manhattan, had already crossed his own experience as someone who was also a queer and homeless person, but he takes a closer look at this, making Ellis (stage star Jeremy Pope) a doppelgänger. for himself at age 25, rejected by his cruel, religious mother (Gabrielle Union) and in a New Jersey shelter. It’s 2005 and driven by the need to feel like his life matters, he follows wall-to-wall coverage of the war on terror all the way to the Marine Corps, a desperate act he hopes will save him.
It was a time when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was still in effect and Ellis, now known by his surname Frans by those around him, forced himself back into the closet to survive and it’s in that gap between what he wants to be and wants to be seen, so that the film finds its rhythm.
The recently released trailer promised some pretty obvious melodrama, but Bratton’s film is usually more sensitive than the marketers would have you think. It’s a movie light on big moments and big speeches, more interested in the difficulty of the everyday, how a queer man navigates a world of aggressive chest-puffing masculinity when his need to be held could be greater than his need to be held. are accepted.
It’s at the film’s strangest moments that things feel most inventive, narrative, and visual, while Bratton most strongly steps outside the boxed-in army drama formula and finds ways to make his film thrive on the Venn diagram between military machismo and gay machismo. eroticism. The physical intimacy, the sweaty overexertion, how it can all seem one, exciting touch away from being sexual and the danger within that proximity, how something can be misinterpreted by your mind or your body. Purple lighting and a pulsating score suddenly turn the barracks into a gay club, and in one daring scene, Ellis’s shower fantasy cruelly intersects with reality and he stands erect, surrounded by the other men. It causes everything to collapse early on, quickly portraying Ellis as an outcast, an experience he is all too accustomed to, but Bratton doesn’t drown us in its misery, flashes of humor and sensuality keep his film nimble if not exactly light .
Pope’s performance is also key to this, his natural strangeness and how he chooses to handle or hide it in a situation like this, adding an extra level of texture to a story that already comes from a lived experience. I don’t believe in the strictness some impose when it comes to the rule that only queer actors play queer people, but Pope’s delicate and deft work here is an example of why mirroring can sometimes work so perfectly. His little hidden caveats, when he allows himself to be ordinary, without the survivor’s self-censorship, are both amusing and sad, and it’s a film that should propel him into the bigger leagues with ease. The pre-written take on Union de-glamming and knuckling down was that this would be her late-stage Oscar grab, a story that works better on paper than on screen. She’s good, especially in her first scene, with a stinging rigor that some actors would balk at or balk at, but there’s too little screen time, to Bratton’s credit, to align it with utopia.
There’s successful growls from an ever-trustworthy Bokeem Woodbine as Ellis’s vicious general and an elusive tenderness from Raúl Castillo as the good agent against his evil, but they mostly exist in the pieces that prove to be far less compelling. Bratton can’t help but fall into a weary military convention and there’s too much here that we’ve seen too many times before, with little to discern. The collapse of a young man, the interpersonal man-to-man conflicts with others, the brutality of military life, it is a story we are all too familiar with, perhaps boringly.
Like the version we see of his younger self, Bratton’s film is caught between these two worlds, one feeling more curious and creative, the other clichéd and constructed. His confidence as a filmmaker might eventually surpass his prowess as a writer in the last act, but The Inspection still marks him as someone to watch.