“Are you in trouble?” Such is the greeting uttered by Gabrielle Union’s Inez towards her son, in an early scene of Elegance Bratton’s debut narrative feature The Inspection. But although it sets a portentous tone for its protagonist’s journey, this drama surprisingly evolves into an uplifting true story of queer identity.
The Inspection centers on Ellis French (Jeremy Pope), a young gay man living in Trenton, New Jersey. Having been rejected by his mother while still a teenager, he is homeless with nowhere to go. Running out of options, he decides to enlist in the Marines. But as a gay man entering a prototypical environment of traditional machismo, the experience will test him physically, emotionally and psychologically.
Indeed, Ellis soon finds himself in troubling situations as he undergoes arduous training under the cruel watch of his instructor Laws (a terrifying Bokeem Woodbine). In one shrewd shot, a road sign suggestively lists Plantation and Recruit Training Depot as adjacent places, immediately hinting towards the demoralizing experience to come. And the film certainly lives up to this promise, depicting typical scenes of forceful commands, condescending insults and montages of strenuous physical training. When Ellis’ sexuality is revealed, the homophobia makes him the target of even more severe abuse.
The procedural aspects of the training hardly explores new territory for those familiar with military films. However, Bratton’s direction and rhythmic audiovisual language is inspired in the way it emphasizes the dance-like choreography required of the drills. Similarly, as the storyline explores the hidden vulnerability of trainees and instructors alike, he cuts to the truth of the performativity underlying masculinity.
For the persecuted Ellis, this masculine performance proves to be particularly challenging. But the film’s biggest appeal lies in its surpassing of victimhood to convey the inherent bravery and strength often required of queer people’s existence in heteronormative societies. Indeed, The Inspection indirectly posits that gay men are well suited for the military, as a life of fighting against intolerance instills its own mental toughness. And this mix of vulnerability and fortitude is conveyed brilliantly by Jeremy Pope, who is perfectly cast in the lead ole due to his natural poise and searching, pleading eyes.
In another noteworthy casting accomplishment, Gabrielle Union stands out as Ellis’ scornful mother. A vision of pursed lips and transparent emotions, her appearances are brief but impactful. In fact, the entire ensemble thankfully succeeds in their heavy lifting, as the schematic screenplay struggles to fill out the finer details and nuances surrounding the narrative’s pivotal moments. The scenes between Union and Pope are especially effective at expressing rich backstories and a shared history. Ultimately, The Inspection may not be the most distinctive screenplay, but through its characters and their portrayals, it brings a vital message of hope and queer resilience to the screen.