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There is something a bit soapy and melodramatic about this queer coming-of-age drama from Sri Lanka, picked up by Ava DuVernay’s company Array and released by Netflix. It’s the tale of a gay Tamil boy, Arjie (played first by Arush Nand and later Brandon Ingram), growing up in the 1970s and 80s as tensions escalate between Tamils and the Sinhalese majority. The storytelling works better in the first half, with some heart-tugging scenes as puzzled little Arjie struggles to understand why boys are not allowed to wear lipstick and play the bride in dress-up games.
Nand plays it beautifully. Arjie is an irrepressibly sunny eight-year-old from a privileged family, but his aunties smirkingly call him “a funny boy” – or as his cousin puts it, “a sissy”. His father is perpetually disappointed that his son is not interested in cricket. Only his cool well-travelled auntie, Radha (Agam Darshi), understands him, painting his toenails red in secret and taking him to the theatre. Every now and then, director Deepa Mehta switches young Nand for the actor who plays teenage Arjie (Ingram), and the older boy becomes a bystander to his childhood, watching on with an emotional ache.
The second part of the film is much less successful, as Ingram takes over acting duties; it’s not his fault, but he looks far too old to play a 16-or-so year-old. So the romance between open-hearted young Arjie and his first love, a Sinhalese boy he meets at school, is completely unconvincing. Gay sex was illegal in Sri Lanka in the 1980s (it remains as an offence on the statute book, punishable by 10 years in jail), but there’s virtually no sense of danger here. Not much either in the sectarian conflict rumbling in the background – the storyline is building up to the Black July killings of 1983, the start of civil war. In the end the story is told rather blandly, the edges sentimentally smoothed down.
• Funny Boy is released on 10 December on Netflix.
Source: The Guardian
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