Starring: Aaron Dominguez, Andrew Kai, Aubrey Joseph, Bokeem Woodbine, Eman Esfandi, Gabrielle Union.
Director: Elegance Bratton
Rating: Not Rated
Runtime: 100 min
The Inspection, a picture primarily based on the writer-director Elegance Bratton’s own experience as a homosexual guy joining the military—a difficult, self-flagellating procedure for someone who had only ever experienced his sexuality as punishment—makes a promising, dynamic narrative debut.
His previous film, the documentary Pier Kids about three homeless LGBTQ+ youths in Manhattan, already touched on his own experience as a person who was also queer and homeless, but in this one, he zeroes in more sharply by making Ellis (stage star Jeremy Pope) a double for himself at 25 and living in a shelter in New Jersey after being rejected by his harsh, religious mother (Gabrielle Union). It’s the year 2005, and in a desperate attempt to feel like his life counts, he follows nonstop TV coverage of the war on terror all the way to the Marine Corps.
When “don’t ask, don’t tell” was still in effect, Ellis—now going by his last name French to people around him—had to force himself back into the closet in order to survive. The movie finds its rhythm in that chasm between who he wants to be and how he wants to be perceived.
Although the recently published trailer hinted at some quite overt melodrama, Bratton’s picture is generally more sensitive than its promoters would like you to believe. A queer man must traverse a world of aggressive chest-puffing masculinity in a movie that is less interested in big moments and big speeches than it is in the struggle of the daily. His urge to be held may outweigh his need to be accepted.
As Bratton most firmly departs from the constrained army drama format and discovers methods to make his film sit and thrive in the Venn diagram between military macho and homoeroticism, the film’s queerest moments are when things feel most imaginative, both aesthetically and narratively. The risk in that closeness, how something can be misinterpreted by your mind or body, the sweaty overexertion, how it can all seem one, exhilarating touch away from being sexual. Ellis’s vision of taking a shower cruelly collides with reality in one stunning scene, and he finds himself standing upright among the other guys. Purple lighting and a throbbing score transform the barracks into a homosexual club. Bratton doesn’t drown us in the sadness of it, keeping his film light-footed, if not exactly light, despite the fact that it immediately paints Ellis as an outsider, an experience he’s all too familiar with.
Pope’s performance is crucial to this as well; his innate queerness and the way he chooses to act toward or conceal it in a circumstance like this adds a further layer of complexity to a tale that already comes from personal experience. I disagree with some people’s stringent enforcement of the requirement that only queer performers portray gay people, but Pope’s sensitive and skilful performance in this scene is an illustration of how well the mirroring technique may occasionally function. It’s a movie that should easily catapult him into the big leagues. His tiny hidden asides, when he allows himself to just be, without the survivalist self-censoring, are both funny and tragic. The pre-written interpretation of Union going unclaimed and getting serious was that this would be her late-stage Oscar grab, a story that reads better on paper than it does on film. To Bratton’s credit, she has too little screen time for it to fit the fantasy, but she is good, particularly in her first moment where she portrays a stinging severity that some actors would either avoid or play up.
Bokeem Woodbine, who you can always count on, delivers some effective snarls as Ellis’s merciless general, and Ral Castillo, who plays the good cop to his bad, manages to convey some difficult-to-define compassion, but they largely appear in the less interesting sections. It’s impossible for Bratton to avoid falling into a stale military habits, and there are far too many things in this that are almost interchangeable. We are all extremely, perhaps boringly familiar with this scenario of a young man breaking down, intimate man-to-man fights with others, and the harshness of military life.
Similar to the younger version of him we witness, Bratton’s film is caught between these two universes, with one feeling more contrived and formulaic and the other more exploratory. In the end, his skill as a writer may have lagged behind his confidence as a filmmaker, but The Inspection nevertheless makes him stand out as someone to watch.