Jeremy Pope and Gabrielle Union are absolutely stellar in The Inspection.
Merriam-Webster defines the word inspection as “a careful and critical examination.” In his fiction debut film, filmmaker Elegance Bratton turns his sharp lens on his own story of rejection, perseverance, and self-acceptance. Set in Trenton, New Jersey, in the years following the September 11th terrorist attack, The Inspection follows Ellis French, a quiet young man whose sensitivity and sexuality have driven a wedge between him and his hostile and hyper-religious mother, Inez (Gabrielle Union, who also served as executive producer). Her rejection of Ellis at age 16 has led him to homelessness for nearly a decade of his life. The distance between himself and his mother wounds Ellis so profoundly that he decides to enlist in the Marines in a final effort to earn not just her respect but her love.
At first, as Ellis leaves the streets of Trenton and rides toward a nameless military base somewhere in the country, 'The Inspection' feels familiar.
The audience expects Ellis to go through several trials, learn to stand up for himself, have a setback, and eventually help Inez see the inhumanity in her rejection. However, the film has much more depth than that. As Ellis sits on that bus full of young men bound for boot camp, hurdling toward his future, something shifts, allowing an experience as complex as the one that Bratton actually lived to come forth.
Pulled off the bus in the blazing hot sun, Ellis finds himself at the mercy of his menacing drill instructor Laws (a monstrously good Bookem Woodbine) and the oppressive, now-defunct “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Policy. From A Few Good Men to Saving Private Ryan, the experiences of military recruits have been seen on screen before, but Bratton offers something unique. Homophobia, rejection, and physical and emotional violence are all tasking subjects. While the first 30 minutes of The Inspection are heavy, the filmmaker takes excellent care in infusing light humor into the narrative weaving it through some of its most solemn moments.
Further complicating manners, Ellis finds himself drawn toward his assistant drill instructor Rosales (Raúl Castillo), who is as beautiful as he is empathic.
Since much of the film consists of training sequences, Bratton chooses to insert lusty dream sequences of Eliis and Rosales together, casting them in bold colors like purple and blue. The scenes are so drastically different from the rest of the film that they are almost shocking at first. However, the chemistry between Pope and Castillo softens everything out, allowing Ellis’ yearning for love to remain palpable.
The gentlemen who portray Ellis’ fellow recruits are also outstanding. Ismail (Eman Esfandi) is ostracized for his Islamic religion. Boles (Aubrey Joseph) is learning that not even the streets could have prepared him for the Maines, and squad leader Harvey (McCaul Lombardi), has both the burden of a family legacy and a chip on his shoulders. The men are mannish, bold, and witty, but the Pose star’s absolute magnetism lights The Inspection up. Though Ellis is desperate to prove himself to his mother, he never attempts to shift or morph himself into someone he’s not. In a platoon of men who are supposed to be exactly the same, Pope sets Ellis free with a look, a quiet gesture, a longing look, or a desperate plea.
Union is also extraordinary here. A veteran actress with countless accolades under her belt, she's quite good in the first half of the film as she chain-smokes in a cluttered apartment blasting gospel music.
However, her ferocious talent springs forth in the film’s final act as the camera shines on her marred skin, cigarette smoke drifting through her fingertips. The Being Mary Jane star gives a truly evocative performance, unlike anything we’ve seen from her previously.
The tonal changes in 'The Inspection' might throw off some viewers, but the truth of Bratton's life and experience, and those of other marginalized, abandoned, and abused people aren't all dark and bleak.
Bratton scrutinizes broken systems, hypocrisy, conditional parenting, and himself by infusing the horrific with some wit.
When it comes time for Ellis to face himself, to honestly examine the man he is and who he wants to become, he will find that that man was present all along. He just needed the strength to find his voice.
The Inspection was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8, 2022.
A24 will release the film in theaters Nov. 18.