How far would you go, should you go, to gain your mother’s love?
Some might say that a parent’s love should be unconditional and that a child’s existence should be enough. For queer youth, the answer is less straightforward. It can be any number of things: tragic, traumatic, infuriating, or affirming of one’s strength and resilience.
The Inspection seeks its answer through a particularly dangerous prism. The film follows Ellis French (Jeremy Pope), a 25-year-old homeless gay man, as he works through U.S. Marine boot camp. It’s 2005: the country is at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is the official military policy. (Although the training officers make a point to scream-ask the recruits if “they are or ever have been homosexual.”) French’s personal climate is worse than the geopolitical: Inez (Gabrielle Union), his homophobic mother, effectively tells him his failure is equal to his death in her eyes, as she coldly hands him his birth certificate so that he can apply. The odds are stacked high against him. However, French is resolute in gaining his mother’s love. As he explains to sergeant Laurence Harvey (Raúl Castillo), he would at least rather die a hero in uniform than on the streets.
As terrible as French’s circumstances and limited options are, The Inspection is disinterested in pity. Writer-director Elegance Bratton, who fictionalized his experiences in the Marines for this film, strives for radical empathy and forceful dignity instead. His script is purposefully opaque about French’s experiences while unhoused and the breakdown of his relationship with Inez. Its absence says it all, without the overwrought and exploitative exposition. Bratton follows the same approach with his taut, energetic, and occasionally artful direction. He captures French through a dignified lens that acknowledges his pain and struggles but doesn’t wallow in them. Whether he is triumphant or destitute, French’s agency is paramount. Even when witnessing the verbal and physical brutalities he experiences during boot camp (two instances are undeniably abusive), you come away with a deep appreciation for his steadfast resolve.
French’s resolve and unapologetic compassion prove to be infectious. The Inspection unfolds itself from a singular experience into a focused and well-rounded examination of military recruitment and training. Bratton genuinely reveres how the military can offer recruits education, discipline, fortification, and camaraderie. It also actively critiques the stoic straight Christian male framework historically defining military excellence. French uses the considerable strength he gained through boot camp to ease the emotional and psychological toll it takes on others. He and Harvey demonstrate that a wink, hug, or comforting word can be equally powerful as screaming and spitting in someone’s face. They prove that recruits don’t have to become monsters, despite Sergeant Laws’ coldly gleeful insistence.
Sometimes, radical empathy and unconditional love aren’t enough to change minds. At the core of The Inspection is Ellis French’s desperate need for his mother’s love. The only thing that French could do is reject a cornerstone of his existence, which he is unable and unwilling to do. That leaves a chasm between them, achingly realized when she can barely tolerate sharing physical space with him. As astute as French can be, his mother is his largest blind spot, causing him to miss her cues of disinterest. Her neglect metastasizes to impact how he processes affection and romantic interest, putting him into precarious emotional and physical positions. Whether or not Ellis and Inez truly reconcile, the film conveys the importance of seeking love from within.
The Inspection is a profoundly personal story beautifully performed across the board. Jeremy Pope is a reliably stirring presence on screen, with a natural charisma that won’t be ignored. The film requires some tampering on his part, masking his sparkle behind a mask of combat-ready stoicism for survival. His performance, where his steely exterior gives way to blasts of emotional ferocity, is riveting. (Denzel’s legendary solitary stoic tear from Glory finds a worthy successor here.) As Inez, Gabrielle Union delivers the best performance of her career. She finds threads of humanity in her reprehensible character that conveys her own tragedy, how hatred and vanity blind her to unconditional love.
In a better world, Ellis French, and by extension Elegance Bratton, wouldn’t have to go so far to receive love and affirmation from their parents. A person’s gender, or the gender of the person they love, wouldn’t matter; love is love, right? The Inspection is keenly aware of the reality. However, Bratton chooses optimism, in the future of an inclusive military and parents learning to love their children unconditionally. His film is an investment in the transformative power of identity, for people wondering if they’re doing enough, or are enough, to deserve love. Hopefully, The Inspection will help them realize that they are.
The Inspection had its U.S. premiere in the Main Slate section of New York Film Festival 2022. The film is scheduled to be released in cinemas on November 18, 2022 courtesy of A24.
Director: Elegance Bratton
Writer: Elegance Bratton
The Inspection is a profoundly personal story beautifully performed across the board.
A late-stage millennial lover of most things related to pop culture. Becomes irrationally irritated by Oscar predictions that don’t come true.