Story time: about a decade ago, I was briefly in the New York City Police Academy. Yes, I was training to be a cop. I didn’t last long, opting for this far safer career instead, but the short-lived experience has always stayed with me, for good and for bad. Watching The Inspection at the Toronto Film Festival, some things came rushing back to me. Sure, many of the particulars are different, but some of the feelings were the same. So, on top of this independent drama being one of the better movies to play at TIFF, it has the added bonus of really hitting home its emotions in a very specific way.
The Inspection could easily have been a moribund slog. Luckily, in adapting his own real life experiences, writer/director Elegance Bratton finds hope, as well as unlikely humor. There are some moments that work better than others, but interestingly, all of the bits meant to provide levity really land. It’s strong calculus, too, as otherwise this might have wound up too heavy to take on. Instead, it becomes wildly compelling.
Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) is a young, gay, black man living in a homeless shelter. In far too many cases, that’s the start of a tragic tale. Ellis, however, is determined to do something else. Visiting his estranged mother Inez (Gabrielle Union), who has rejected him for his sexual orientation, he’s come to get his birth certificate. Why? He’s joining the Marines.
Arriving at boot camp, he’s met by Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), a drill sergeant ready to break new recruits. Already looking askance at Ellis, when his orientation appears to be discovered by his fellow Marines in training, Laws gets even crueler. Abused on all sides, it’s only the help of another instructor in Rosales (Raúl Castillo) that keeps him going. If he can become a Marine, perhaps he’ll win back his mother? Moreover, maybe he’ll prove something to himself as well.
Jeremy Pope has a star-making role that he more than makes the most of in The Inspection. Ellis is played with a ton of specificity, yet it’s in Pope’s portrayal that the universal feelings stream out. It’s quite an impressive turn. Bokeem Woodbine does a good job with the somewhat stock role of a cruel drill instructor, while Raúl Castillo highlights the conflict in his military man wonderfully. Then, there’s Gabrielle Union, who only has a few scenes, but makes the most of them with her complex and flawed maternal role. Supporting players include Eman Esfandi, Nicholas Logan, and McCaul Lombardi, but Pope and Union are the main highlights.
Filmmaker Elegance Bratton rarely hits a wrong note here. If there’s a flaw in The Inspection, it’s how broadly some of the secondary characters are drawn, but it’s a small critique. Mostly, this is a well shot and deeply moving film. Bratton effectively hammers home the feelings of his character, standing in for his own experiences. As mentioned above, I shared in some of them, particularly in being the one cadet or recruit being picked on by someone with a mean streak, but there’s a universality in what he’s depicting, just done through a very specific story.
The Inspection is one of the smaller flicks at TIFF, but it’s among the better titles at the fest, so don’t let this one slip through the cracks. It may seem like a hard watch, and certain scenes definitely are, but it’s not quite the film you’re expecting. Not only does it defy expectations, the movie leaves you in a surprisingly hopeful place. Watch out for this one!