Elegance Bratton’s visceral narrative feature The Inspection – which played at this year’s New York Film Festival and just had its theatrical release today (November 18) – is the story of a son who desperately wants to please his mother. Based on his real-life experience joining the marines in the 2000s, Bratton crafts a story both achingly personal and deeply relatable.
After five years of homelessness, young Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) gathers his modest belongings and returns to the home of his mother Inez (Gabrielle Union). In the background, religious preaching can be heard echoing through the room, filling the silence between this estranged mother and son. Ellis is there to get his birth certificate, but he’s also hoping that his mother will feel empathy for his plight upon seeing him after so long. However, when he tells her that he plans to join the marines, she scoffs, citing his homosexuality as an obvious barrier to acceptance. Ellis takes these comments in stride, showing patience and understanding beyond his years. He’s heard all this before. Eventually, Inez gives him the birth certificate with a warning: “Come back the son I gave birth to.”
Inez is like so many homophobic mothers we’ve seen before, onscreen and in real life. In a society devoted to the violent bastardization of religion, and taking teachings about love and forgiveness and weaponizing them as tools of hate and social rejection, we find that the most pious are often the most frightening. Obviously, Ellis can’t stop being gay and his mother’s refusal to acknowledge and accept that drives him to do something extreme. Marine training isn’t for the faint of heart, and when Ellis arrives at boot camp he is immediately berated with questions about his sexuality. “Are you a communist? Are you a homosexual?” Leland Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) asks Ellis (now being referred to by his last name), screaming the words directly into his face. Though he says no, the truth soon comes out and the brutality of boot camp quickly becomes a sadistic nightmare, as Laws and his favorite recruit Laurence Harvey (McCaul Lombardi) abuse French both mentally and physically.
But regardless of what they throw at him French sticks around, all while he’s wrestling with sexual urges that transport him into a erotic fantasy world where he can finally be himself. The score, handled by beloved experimental pop group Animal Collective, is appropriately dreamy, creating an emotional soundscape for French’s inner desires. At the center of his fantasies is the gentle and strong Rosales (Raúl Castillo), who acts as a counter to Laws’ brutality. Rosales is kind to French, and the young recruit is quietly affectionate in return. In the absence of a parent’s love, French throws his energy into being emotionally available for the men around him. His actions are instinctual, his hands moving before his brain does. There’s tension in these scenes – at any moment, another officer or recruit could see him touching another man. But French is brave, caring more about freely giving the support to others that his mother has always denied him.
French exhibits what can only be described as radical optimism. He truly believes that kindness and patience are healing powers, even in the oppressive hyper-masculine environment of boot camp. But it’s difficult to know where that saint-like patience comes from. How often do we see a man so thoroughly beaten down by the world who is still so hopeful? As a viewer, I kept wondering what it was that allowed French (and by extension, Bratton) to become so well-adjusted in the face of constant adversity. Remarkable still is the way Pope’s performance keeps French grounded in reality, balancing his stoicism, boiling inner turmoil, and erotic desires.
Despite the rampant homophobia at play, The Inspection is unquestionably a queer film. Lachlan Milne’s cinematography worships the male form, taking cues from Claire Denis’s film about the complexity of masculine relationships, Beau Travail. There’s palpable tension in the film between the attractiveness of the marines, and the knowledge that they use their bodies to brutalize others. French is turned on by his fellow recruits one second, and beaten by them the next. This daring balance of pleasure and pain makes Bratton’s film a complicated and exciting narrative experience. Neither glorifying nor outright criticizing the military, The Inspection instead presents a matter-of-fact depiction of the prejudice, misogyny, and pack mentality of the Marine Corps.
Uninterested in social commentary, Bratton presents us with a snapshot of a very difficult time in his life, and asks us to bear witness to it without judgment. Ultimately, despite adversity, the film is optimistic. The Inspection is a story about trauma and the ways we cope without resources and a soft place to land. On his way to finding himself, French endures physical and emotional abuse. These are not things that needed to happen to him, but his inclinations towards radical love and acceptance allow him to rise above the bigotry that surrounds him. There’s something beautiful about a story that truly believes that a better world is possible, without any delusion about the pain that is often endured in the process.
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