by Hope Madden
We’ve seen it so many times, often very effectively. A sloppy recruit, someone with nothing to lose but himself, does just that during boot camp. Maybe it ends in ambivalence and horror (Full Metal Jacket), maybe it ends in heroism and an unwitting invasion of Czechoslovakia (Stripes), maybe it ends in romance (An Officer and a Gentleman).
While the story that writer/director Elegance Bratton (Pier Kids) tells with The Inspection follows those familiar beats, it’s messier, more frustrating, more honest and more human than all the others together. As it should be, since it is his own story.
Jeremy Pope delivers an astonishing, raw performance as Ellis French, a 25-year-old homeless gay Black man. His mother Inez (Gabrielle Union in the finest performance of her career) cast him out at 16. We meet Ellis on the day he enlists in the Marines.
And you thought Bill Murray was going to have a tough time.
While the steps in the screenplay are familiar – the recruit has much to escape in his day-to-day; he joins and gets to know a group of men of different backgrounds, each of whom will be tested alongside him; he comes out the other side a different man. But Ellis French’s stakes are higher, his difficulties are more dangerous, and the lessons learned along the way probably affect those around him more profoundly than they affect him.
Bratton also pulls away from audience expectation by avoiding the cliché of one-dimensional recruit characters. There’s good and bad, heroism and cowardice, in everyone on the screen. In this way Bratton allows a certain moral ambiguity to seep into the film. That gray area becomes the space for forgiveness to take shape.
What Bratton brings to this well-worn story is an idea perfectly realized by Pope. The Inspection is a showcase for the idea that resilience comes from a balance of strength and forgiveness. French finds ways to forgive what to most would be unforgivable. This is how he perseveres. It’s a beautiful, difficult lesson to learn, even for a viewer. But thanks to that resilience, we have this exceptional film.