Jeremy Pope elevates Elegance Bratton’s autobiographical film The Inspection, a movie that perhaps works best as a story within a story.
Autobiographical films are particularly difficult to make because the stories they tell are so personal and affecting to their writers and directors that it can be hard for them to see them objectively. The focus is often on relaying an accurate depiction of the facts rather than a tale that really works for an audience, and the result is perhaps a film like The Inspection – a movie that looks compelling on paper and that has many elements that work in its favour, but that ultimately isn’t as moving or affecting as it could have been.
The Inspection is inspired by writer-director Elegance Bratton’s (Growing Up) own life as a young, gay Black man who decided to join the Marines to find a sense of purpose, having been rejected by his mother and feeling directionless in life. The film begins by introducing us to its protagonist, Ellis (Jeremy Pope, of One Night In Miami), who visits his mum for the first time in five years in order to get his birth certificate, as he’ll need it to enlist. It doesn’t take long to realise that his mother, Inez (Gabrielle Union, of Bad Boys II), isn’t exactly as welcoming and loving as he would have hoped: on the contrary, she seems to be so disgusted by her own son’s sexuality, which she calls his “lifestyle,” to the point of cleaning whatever he touches and putting newspapers on the couch where he’s about to sit. “If you don’t come back – the son I gave birth to – consider this certificate void,” she tells him as he leaves, and Ellis embarks on a new adventure, desperate to find the kind of support he’s never had.
Needless to say, joining the Marines isn’t exactly a walk in the park, especially when his instructors and fellow recruits realise Ellis – or “French,” as they now call him – is gay. And so, our protagonist has to withstand a whole lot of punishment, bullying, and abuse, all while also enduring the impossibly demanding training, where both drill sergeant Laws (Bokeem Woodbine, of Fargo) and competitive squad leader Harvey (McCaul Lombardi, of American Honey) also seem to have it out for him. The only brim of hope for Ellis comes from the other drill sergeant, Rosales (Raúl Castillo), who seems to be kinder to him for reasons he can’t quite yet comprehend. As the film reaches its conclusion, Ellis is put under incredible pressure, and ultimately finds a new sense of purpose that will influence his future actions.
The Inspection is, to me, a story within a story. If there’s one thing we understand right away, from the very first scenes of the film, is that Ellis’ homophobic mother is never going to accept him, as her stance on her son’s “lifestyle” is crystal clear. Ellis understands that and stands up to her, but, at the same time, he still can’t help but constantly seek her approval throughout the film. During his training, he writes to her, and eventually calls her when his letters are unanswered. He asks her to come to his graduation ceremony, and, even if she does make it there, her ideas about her son haven’t changed: on the contrary, she ruins the day by embarrassing him in public.
Since The Inspection is an autobiographical film, we know that the character of Inez French is based on Bratton’s own life, and the fact that the film itself closes with a dedication to the director’s mother is heartbreaking: perhaps even more than the film itself, this fact alone strongly proves that a parent’s lack of acceptance and love can have everlasting effects on a person’s life that they’ll carry with them forever. Fiction mirrors real life, and the film’s dedication feels like Bratton’s attempt to reach out to his mother one more time: even after all these years, the director hasn’t given up hope on his mother, whose approval he still seeks, and that is the strongest and most effective way in which the movie sends its message across.
Speaking of the film itself, the acting is incredible. Jeremy Pope carries the entire movie with an exquisitely layered, raw performance that makes his character feel authentic at all times. Often with looks or physical acting alone, Pope will make you feel enraged, hopeful, empowered, heartbroken, and everything in between. The cinematography is also effective, and a few scenes stand out in which we witness Ellis’ fantasies and are then abruptly brought back to reality, and our protagonist’s hopes and dreams clash with the rejection he faces on a daily basis.
The Inspection ‘s flaws mainly lie in the screenplay, unfortunately. Perhaps as a result of the director being either too close to the story or too focused on its protagonist, the other characters in the film don’t always come across as well-rounded individuals and can, at times, feel like caricatures. The stern sergeant Laws, for example, is often seen shouting commands and being extremely strict with the recruits for the sake of it, and we’ve already seen these kinds of portrayals in many films in the past, from An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) to Full Metal Jacket (1987), and, of course, Jarhead (2005), which the film itself even references.
“I hate recruits, but I love Marines,” says drill sergeant Laws when he first meets the squad, promising them to “break” them. Later in the movie, he keeps that promise by showing no compassion, imparting punishment that doesn’t match the “crime,” and even giving illogical, cruel orders, such as that of eating flies. Later in the film, the character tells sergeant Rosales that their job is “not to make Marines, but to make monsters,” reinforcing a specific stereotype of inflexible, inhumane drill sergeants that we’ve already seen too many times before. A film like Eismayer, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year and also takes place in the military, revolving around a queer new recruit, depicts a stern instructor too, but doesn’t forget that the times have changed, and shows us a different, more modern portrayal of the army as a whole. The Inspection, on the other hand, doesn’t do much to reinvent the genre, and sticks to depictions of drill instructors that aren’t multifaceted or well-developed enough to feel entirely believable.
But the main flaw of the film lies in the narrative itself, as it feels like the entire movie builds up to a conclusion that doesn’t have as much of an impact as it should. There is some growth for our protagonist, and there are a few deeply meaningful scenes – two in particular revolving around conversations between Ellis and sergeant Rosales, another very interesting character that feels underdeveloped – that will really affect you, cleverly subverting your expectations. It’s also wonderful to see some of the other recruits discuss the possibility of reporting sergeant Laws for his behaviour towards Ellis, which reinforces the idea that acceptance is still possible even in traditionally masculine environments such as the Marines.
Earlier this year, Top Gun: Maverick was so successful with viewers even if its narrative is straightforward to the point of being predictable, and that is because the audience always feels genuine warmth towards its characters, each carrying their own issues, ideals, and personality that imbues them with real authenticity, and makes the story more compelling and affecting as a result. This is what’s missing in The Inspection: this gorgeous, atmospheric film is still an affecting, important watch, but, while its protagonist feels multilayered and authentic, the characters around him don’t always do, and this, combined with a resolution that doesn’t leave much room for growth, makes the film feel a little underwhelming.
The Inspection is still an important, compelling watch, elevated by a superb performance from Jeremy Pope, and it’s worth watching not just for the story itself but also for the story within it – that of Elegance Bratton’s own heartbreaking attempts to connect with his own mother, teaching us about the fundamental importance of love and acceptance.
The Inspection premiered at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival on October 16, 2022, and will be released theatrically in the US on November 18.
Read our list of films to watch at the London Film Festival this year.