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‘The Inspection’: A lyrical, distinctive boot camp story

Elegance Bratton’s debut feature is based on his experience going through Marine Corps training as a Black gay man

Jeremy Pope in “The Inspection.” (A24 Films)
(3 stars)

Most of “The Inspection” transpires in a U.S. Marine Corps boot camp, the sort of place whose cruelties have been dramatized in movies many times before. Two things distinguish writer-director Elegance Bratton’s lyrical debut feature from its predecessors: a clanking, droning, energizing score by experimental rock band Animal Collective and a central character — based on Bratton himself — who’s Black and gay.

The semi-autobiographical movie is set in 2005, during the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” era. Yet Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) is harangued about possibly being a homosexual (or a communist or a druggie) when he arrives for Marine training. He says no, but his life has been defined by his sexuality ever since he was kicked out at 16 by his conservative Christian mother, Inez French (Gabrielle Union, who’s also one of the film’s executive producers). Nine years later, Ellis is living in a New Jersey homeless shelter when he makes a risky bet on the Marines as his vehicle to a better life.

In a narratively slippery shower scene that melds fantasy and reality, Ellis is outed. This alienates most of his fellow trainees and unleashes the brutality of drill instructor Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) and his thuggish protege, squad leader Harvey (McCaul Lombardi). That Ellis and Laws are Black and Harvey is White makes no difference, although cultural identities do affect two other characters: Muslim recruit Ismail (Eman Esfandi), who takes almost as much abuse as Ellis, and Latino drill instructor Rosales (Raúl Castillo), whose empathy French misconstrues as romantic interest.

In the boot-camp scenes, the specificity of Ellis’s plight is somewhat blunted by the familiarity of his circumstances. Dictatorial instructors and ostracized recruits have faced off in “Full Metal Jacket” and many other movies. But where most films that recount military training ultimately lead to the battlefield, this one is preparation for a different sort of combat.

Although training sequences comprise the bulk of the movie, they serve foremost to separate and spotlight two poignant bookends in which Ellis attempts to reconcile with his mother. (“The Inspection” is dedicated to the memory of Bratton’s mom.) In both encounters, minor conflicts spiral into frenzy as son and mother’s hopes for each other are thwarted.

Pope, a well-regarded stage actor, endows Ellis with drive and dignity. Since the aspiring Marine must hide his feelings — resentment against his vicious superior as well as erotic impulses — Pope conveys the man’s emotions most often with furtive glances and stifled expressions. In a smaller but showier role, Union is startling. Known mostly for amiable performances in romantic comedies and action flicks, the actress here is raw and courageously dislikable.

If the film’s crux is the relationship between mother and son, it’s the latter’s outlook that guides both the story and visual style. Cinematographer Lachlan Milne (who shot last year’s Korean American drama “Minari”) favors intimate compositions in which the camera’s view is sometimes partially blocked. Milne also shifts color schemes, with regular life keyed to grayish green and French’s reveries turning the screen a rosy tint. The subjective viewpoint recalls “Moonlight,” a movie that’s also thematically linked.

At the end of basic training, Ellis gets the same job the filmmaker did: combat camera specialist, making photographs and videos. That’s an assignment Bratton pursued into civilian life, where he made “Pier Kids,” a documentary about homeless LGBTQ youths in New York City, and now “The Inspection.” It seems the Marine Corps was a good judge of Bratton’s potential after all.

R. At AMC Georgetown 14 and Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains coarse language throughout, sexuality, some nudity and violence. 95 minutes.

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