We know that Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) survives — and thrives, we hope — because Elegance Bratton survived. And, yes, thrived: turning his deeply painful, wonderfully human life story into his first narrative feature, the remarkable “The Inspection.” Bratton’s artful eye previously caught the attention of the indie documentary community, care of his rich “Pier Kids,” and he seamlessly carries over his ability to navigate complex human emotions (read: complex humans) into his own attempt at an autobiography. How lucky we are he is here to tell this story and, as ever, we can only hope to tell more.
Loosely based on Bratton’s own unexpected early aughts entry into the military, the 2005-set “The Inspection” follows young Ellis French, a young, gay, unhoused Black man struggling through life in New Jersey. Ellis has already decided his next step before we meet him, but as we enter into his orbit, he’s about to tell the most important person in his life: his mother Inez (a haunting Gabrielle Union). As Ellis will tell another character later on, he has raised himself since he was 16, presumably around the time his mother discovered he was gay and kicked him out. It’s been nearly a decade, and Inez still refuses to reconcile her love for some vague idea of “her son” with the actual young man who shows up on her doorstep, a tiny bouquet of flowers clutched in his hand.
Ellis is all hope, because he has to be. There is nothing left for him, or at least, nothing else good. As Ellis tells Inez during one of the film’s many emotionally immersive longer sequences, he’s joining the Marines. Inez hopes it will make a man out of him. She hopes he will come back heterosexual. She hopes she can love him again. Ellis, a empathetic character of the highest order — one both capable of giving and deserving of receiving empathy — is desperate to make his mother proud.
Framed against the backdrop of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and the War on Terror, there’s no question how Ellis’ entry into boot camp will go, but the great trick of Bratton’s “The Inspection” is the repeated ways he finds to invert what we think we know about Ellis, about military life, about how men bond, and about how deep tenderness can be found even in the midst of profound trauma and brutality. Ellis’ fellow recruits run the gamut, from the legacy squad leader Harvey (McCaul Lombardi) to conflicted Castro (Aaron Dominguez) and the similarly shunned Ismail (Eman Esfandi). Their drill instructor? No less than Bookem Woodbine, giving texture to a very traditional take on the trope (he’s a jerk!).
But mostly, there is Rosales (a stirring Raúl Castillo), an assistant instructor who Ellis fixates on immediately and earnestly. Bratton moves between rough-and-ready training sequences and lusty fantasy diversions — all of them reorienting the many men Ellis forced to live and work around — all of them evocatively lensed by cinematographer Lachlan Milne. Color saturations help tip off different variations of Ellis’ experiences, warm reds for the erotic stuff, flat greens and grays for drab military exercises. That they all feel of the same piece and the same story, even when Bratton makes literal jumps from scene to scene, speak to his persistence of vision. (Music by Animal Collective further binds the big swings, particularly in turning seemingly expected training montages into gritty, grinding performances that take on a truly fresh cast.)
How difficult it must be to choose the person who will star as your avatar in your most personal story, and how blessed Bratton must have felt when he picked Jeremy Pope (already nominated for an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony for his varied career). Pope’s giant eyes catch the light even in dark moments; you can’t look away from them. “The Inspection” is Ellis’ story, and Pope carries the character with such depth and such ease that there seem to be no lines between performer and character. Pope is also naturally charming in a way can be deployed for moments of great amusement, and as dark as “The Inspection” might sound, Bratton’s surprising sense of humor finds an easy home in Pope’s work.
That’s part of the appeal of the film, which manages to be both intensely personal and widely enjoyable, engendering empathy at every turn, but never falling into cheap machinations or callow drama just for the hell of it. This is a human story, as messy and complex and maddening as any ever told, and while Bratton makes it his own (how could he not?), the generosity with which he shares it with us make it special indeed.
“The Inspection” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. A24 releases it in theaters on Friday, November 18.