Jeremy Pope Shines In ‘The Inspection’, Elegance Bratton’s Personal First Feature – TIFF 2022 Review
Elegance Bratton made a name for himself with a series of short films he produced and directed and his documentary Pier Kids in 2019. Now, he is stepping into the feature film lane with his semi-autobiographical tale, The Inspection. Almost immediately, his feature film career is taking off like a rocket, and with A24 backing this personal story, Bratton and star Jeremy Pope will find themselves in the awards conversation. And there is no better way to debut a film than to start its awards journey at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
Written and directed by Bratton, The Inspection follows Ellis French (Pope), a young man forced into homelessness by his homophobic single mother (Gabrielle Union). To reclaim his life and future, French enlists in the Marines. While the Marines offer him basic human decency, such as shelter, food and access to a shower, French must endure hate and bigotry. After passing the physical examination, French fails to hide his sexual orientation, which has him become the target of excruciating hazing from his training instructor Leland Laws (Bokeem Woodbine). French’s only solace is his will to survive and the support of his superior officer Laurence Harvey (Raúl Castillo), on who he happens to develop a crush.
First and foremost, The Inspection is a character-driven tale. This is not a picture that glorifies the Marines or takes us away from the boot camp on Parris Island, South Carolina, or to the war-torn lands the Marines are supposedly sent to fight for America. The Inspection is an intimate affair that focuses solely on the evolution of Ellis French.
There is an extra part of French’s relationship with his mother. While these moments are momentous for French’s story, the film suffers slightly from the miscast Union. Do not get me wrong, Union is great. She is shockingly grotesque with her casual disregard for her child’s life. Her ability to switch tones when she believes she is getting her way to when she realizes that the Marines will not magically make her son straight is startling, to say the least. She is likely a shoo-in for awards consideration. The only problem is that Union is not convincing enough to play a mother to Pope’s character. The two actors simply don’t have that chemistry. However, it is the fault of neither fault, and they are both excellent in their respective roles.
By extension, the film is a platform for Pope to make a convincing argument for why he is meant to be a Hollywood star. With that being said, the story is fairly safe. Bratton doesn’t overly expose his audience to the hardships of being a gay man in the Marines. His film carefully considers the personal journey he and French went on. The film never shakes off the feeling that there could be more done with this story, but its simplicity helps shine a light on the talented Pope and provides credibility to Bratton’s new career path as a feature filmmaker.
Bratton trains his camera solely on Pope’s face for long periods, capturing his curiosity, determination, and longing. Bratton doesn’t spare us from the sparse joyful moments French relishes in when Pope injects a touch of humour by expressing French’s personality with flashes of his wide bright smile or rolling his eyes at the ludicrousness around him.
There is also French’s sexuality. While it is a weapon used against him by his superiors and fellow marines, his sexuality is never painted as unfavourable. Of course, why would it, since Bratton is pulling from his own experiences? However, there is something to be said about how limited French is with his ability to express his desire or simply fantasize. There is a hint of that which is quickly turned into a traumatic experience. Still, the scene indicates the film’s ability to be more than just a painful recounting of a young man’s journey to self-actualization.
There is often a line drawn between entertainment and poignant storytelling. There is an immense investment in pulling on the audience’s heartstrings and displaying uncomfortable truths on-screen without fear of alienating audiences for how dark or upsetting the story may be. In the case of The Inspection, we have a lead who is not without charm or personality. It is ironic that a gay man is sharing his space in an environment that could not be any more homoerotic yet is incredibly homophobic. There could have been some fun had with that, and that fun would not have taken away from the seriousness of French’s experience. Bratton dabbles with alluding to French’s fantasies, but it happens sparingly.
In the end, what we hope to see in such personal films is a creative mind finding peace with their past and being as honest about their experiences as possible. And if Elegance Bratton’s emotional reaction to his film’s premiere at TIFF is any indication, he has succeeded at doing just that. To find a way to craft a story that neither demonizes one homophobic mother nor diminishes the impact of such a negative presence takes a lot of strength and healing. The Inspection could have certainly amped up the entertainment value a bit, but what makes it engaging is its ability to juggle such a sensitive relationship and provide a pathway of healing for others in similar predicaments. Bratton’s film is essentially the extended hand many young folks in the LGBTQ+ community need.