The programmers at the first close-to-full TIFF since 2019 decided to open their event this year with a pair of tearjerkers, films that would likely move even the most cynical moviegoers. It’s interesting that this year’s fest starts with two films directed by lesser-known filmmakers than the high-profile premieres to come on the weekend, but there’s an even better comparison to be made in how each film feels like a pronouncement of a future star. And, sadly, how each film falls just short of what it’s reaching for. Neither are as abysmal as some flicks chosen to open this fest in year’s past—looking right at you, “The Judge”—and I suspect both will have their ardent admirers, people so moved by their true stories that they overlook their flaws. After all, sometimes that’s what movie going is about—the movies that move us.
And there’s no denying that Elegance Bratton’s “The Inspection” is a moving drama. It wears that intention like a uniform. Bratton is telling his own story here, and there’s a personal aspect of the filmmaking that gives the film some power even if it feels like a third party might have been able to shape Bratton’s story a little differently. There’s such a strong emphasis on “major moments” in “The Inspection” as every other scene feels weighted with message or emotion when there’s a better version of this story that takes its time to breathe, gets to know its supporting characters, and elevates its themes organically instead of hitting them like a drill sergeant.
Bratton owes a great debt to Jeremy Pope, who stars as Ellis French, the stand-in for the writer/director. Pope is a clear talent, someone who can take melodramatic material and embed in it his bones and eyes—conveying so much with his incredibly expressive face. From the very beginning of “The Inspection,” we are with Pope, rooting for him to succeed. In fact, his work is so powerful that it highlights some of the weaknesses—mostly in writing, not acting—through the rest of the film because he’s such a force of nature in this movie. It’s one of the best performances of the year—I just wish it was in a stronger work overall.
We meet French almost a decade after being thrown out of his mother’s (Gabrielle Union) house when he was 16 and came out of the closet. He’s homeless now, estranged from his mother in New Jersey. He goes to her to get his birth certificate, which he needs to join the Marines. He’s decided that this is the place to go to give his life meaning, and I liked that Bratton doesn’t look down on this decision—after all, he made it. Yes, Ellis shouldn’t have to risk his life as a soldier to find purpose, but Bratton and Pope allow us to understand how he reached this point in a way that doesn’t feel reductive or manipulative.
Of course, boot camp is a nightmare for Ellis. He has a unit commander (an imposing Bokeem Woodbine) who practically wants him dead. Woodbine has a few speeches about pushing Ellis harder than the rest because he has further to go to be the monster that the Marines need him to be, but he feels a bit too much like a plot device, the R. Lee Ermey of the modern-day boot camp movie. Better is Raul Castillo as the drill instructor who tries to keep Ellis alive after his sexuality becomes an issue. And I did find it interesting that French’s fellow soldiers start slowing coming around to defend him against brutality, as it seems likely would (and probably did) happen. The era of an entire squad that stays quiet when someone’s life is literally in jeopardy seems to be (hopefully) a thing of the past. After all, these men are trained first and foremost to protect one another, and “The Inspection” conveys how that primary mission is antithetical to judging someone like Ellis French.
It's all very well-meaning but Bratton too often favors the drama over the realism. There are tender, beautiful moments of the latter—such as another homeless man saying goodbye to Ellis in an early scene—and I longed for a version of “The Inspection” that trusts its viewer enough to let the film breathe. In a TIFF of very long movies, “The Inspection” is surprisingly short, and its brevity doesn’t give it the impact it could have had. After all, a journey to self-discovery and self-confidence isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.
Speaking of athletic metaphors, Sally El Hosaini’s “The Swimmers” is full of ‘em. This based-on-a-true-story tearjerker comes to TIFF with the Netflix brand, and I suspect it will find a very loyal fanbase when it premieres on the streaming service. It’s too moving not to connect with most viewers, anchored by incredibly nuanced and charismatic performances from its two stars. In fact, I wish El Hosaini trusted them more because she weighs down “The Swimmers” with so much on-the-nose dialogue and sweeping emotional cues that the movie doesn’t really need. There’s such a strong version of this tale with the same lead actresses that allows itself to be a little rougher around the edges.
Yusra (Nathalie Issa) and Sara Mardini (Manal Issa) live in the increasingly dangerous city of Damascus in the mid-2010s. They are competitive swimmers, trained by their father (Ali Suliman), and hoping to compete in the Olympics someday. Yusra is the more athletically ambitious and generally more reserved of the sisters. While Sara is out partying, Yusra is worried about the bombs falling on the horizon. They decide to flee Syria, planning to go to Germany, where they can use a family process to bring their younger sister and parents over too. Traveling with their cousin (Ahmed Malek), they board a boat to Greece, and one of the most harrowing scenes in years unfolds. As an overcrowded boat held together by masking tape and prayers starts to sink, the motor dies, and the waves pick up. It’s hard not to feel the emotional pull of what’s unfolding and think about how many refugees don’t survive such perilous journeys.
Of course, Yusra and Sara do survive. There’s no movie otherwise, which is something tragic to think about—the Yusras and Saras who didn’t make it across the Mediterranean. After a few more dangerous stops on the path to freedom, “The Swimmers” pivots again—it really could be used to teach the three-act structure what with its “Damascus” chapter, “Travel” chapter, and “Germany” chapter. The final one is the sports movie as they meet a swim coach (Matthias Schweighofer of “Army of the Dead”) and realize that their Olympic dreams may not be over.
The Issa sisters are such a gift to El Hosaini and this movie as a whole. Nathalie has the perfect blend of vulnerability and courage while Manal has a sly charm that fits Sara perfectly. I kept wishing that “The Swimmers” would challenge them more instead of giving them superficial dialogue because that’s how confident I am that they could have delivered. It feels like someone at Netflix worried so much that audiences wouldn’t be drawn to a refugee story with few recognizable stars, and so they leaned harder than they had to on the melodrama, the inspirational movie clichés, and that overly polished Netflix sheen that makes all of this film’s varied settings somehow look mostly the same. The story of Yusra and Sara Mardini is so inherently powerful and the women who play them so talented that “The Swimmers” never needed any of those cinematic lifejackets to stay afloat.