“The Inspection” is a fascinating coming-of-age drama which often swings back and forth between conventional and unconventional elements. As a queer film mainly set in the US Marine boot camp, the movie surely distinguishes itself to some degree in terms of story and character, but it also follows a rather conventional narrative we can expect from its main background, and that makes an interesting contrast with its ambivalent attitude toward what its young gay trainee hero has to endure for becoming a man and, yes, good marine.
At the beginning, the movie, which is set in the late 2000s, succinctly establishes how things have been hard and difficult for its young gay hero. Since he was kicked out of his home by his stern mother, Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) has struggled a lot to live on streets without much hope, and he eventually comes to make a big decision which may get him out of his current miserable status. He is going to join the Marine Corps just because he wants to have a more stable life at least for a while, and that leads to his awkward reunion with his mother, who is still not glad to see him at all but gives him a necessary piece of document for his upcoming enlistment as requested.
We soon see Ellis and a bunch of other recruits going to the boot camp on Parris Island, South Carolina, and what follows next is not so far from Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) and other similar military drama films. Right from their arrival in the boot camp, their drill instructor and his two assistant instructors are ready to break and then harden them by any means necessary, and we surely get a series of sweaty moments as Ellis and his fellow trainees endure one difficult training after another.
Certainly well aware of the hostility toward LGBTQ+ people in the army, Ellis tries to stay low as much as possible, but, as a virile young man, he cannot help but stimulated by all those able-bodied men around him including one of the assistant instructors. At one point, he happens to let himself loose in a naughty gay fantasy while having a shower along with other trainees, and the following consequence leads him to a very unpleasant moment.
Once his homosexuality is exposed to everyone around him, Ellis soon finds himself frequently ostracized and bullied day by day. Some of his fellow trainees regard him with disgust and contempt, and that is nothing compared to how he is cruelly mistreated by their drill instructor, who does not hide his homophobia at all in front of Ellis and other trainees.
Of course, Ellis becomes more conflicted about whether he really wants to be a marine, but there comes an unexpected support from one of the assistant drill instructors, who is also incidentally the one to whom Ellis is secretly attracted from the beginning. Thanks to this guy’s compassionate support, Ellis keeps trying to harden himself under more pressure, and, what do you know, he subsequently comes to earn some respect from his fellow trainees.
Around that point, the screenplay by director/writer Elegance Bratton, who made a feature film debut here in this movie, hesitates to explore more of the dramatic tension between its hero’s homosexuality and the oppressive environment surrounding him. While it never clarifies what is exactly going on between its hero and his unexpected supporter, the screenplay also comes to lose its focus a bit as paying some attention to several other fellow trainees at times. In case of one Muslim trainee, he seems to have his own conflict and pressure to deal with, but his subplot is resolved a little too hurriedly via one poignant emotional moment between him and Ellis, and he is eventually put aside along with other trainee characters around the end of the story.
Above all, the movie does not specify much about how its hero feels about his military experience. What he has to endure along the story is often infuriating, and the movie seems angry about that at first, but it also wants to recognize that the Marine Corps gives him a direction for his life in addition to teaching him how to be a man. That contradictory aspect is evident when Ellis makes a clear and strong stand against his mother later in the story, who still expects her son to give up his, uh, lifestyle.
Anyway, the movie still holds our attention as a deeply personal story with a considerable amount of sincerity and honesty. Just like the hero of the film, Bratton had a pretty hard time due to his homophobic mother before eventually enlisting in the Marine Corps, and I guess making this film was a sort of healing process for him, though, as far as I can observe from a number of imperfect aspects of his screenplay, he still seems indecisive about his feelings and thoughts about that difficult period in his life.
Bratton draws good performances from his main cast members. While Jeremy Pope is believable in his character’s gradual growth along the story, Raúl Castillo and Bokeem Woodbine are effective as two very different drill instructors in the story, and Gabrielle Union, whom you may remember for her colorful comic supporting turn in “Bring It On” (2000), shows a more serious side of her talent as bringing some human complexity to her seemingly thankless supporting part.
In conclusion, “The Inspection” may not pass any close inspection, but its weak aspects are mostly compensated by its good parts including the solid acting from Pope and other notable performers in the film. Bratton mostly succeeds here in presenting his own personal story to tell, and it will be interesting to see what other stories he will present next.