When making a film about a country’s turbulent political and cultural struggles for a wider international audience, directors should never disregard how native viewers will respond. After all, there is a responsibility that comes with telling these stories; narrative licence can, and most likely will, be taken to shape narratives steeped in real events to a conventional structure, but when a filmmaker doesn’t take the time and effort to offer an authentic portrayal of pivotal moments in a nation’s history, that lack of authenticity can feel apparent even to those who had no prior awareness.
Such is the case with Funny Boy, Indo-Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s queer coming-of-age story set amidst the early violent clashes that led to the Sri Lankan civil war. That the film simplifies events down to the broadest melodramatic narrative beats isn’t necessarily a problem, but there’s something telling about the lack of depth afforded to a significant historical moment western audiences will likely have remained ignorant of. It’s hard to shake the feeling of inauthenticity that suggests the director prioritised international audiences over any in Sri Lanka, where her film is unlikely to be screened due to homosexuality remaining illegal to this day. It’s a strange case of a film doing all it can to minimise its cultural specificity to tell a “universal” coming of age story, generalising the historical context to such an extent that the story fails to have any impact.
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Funny Boy tells the story of Arjie Chelvaratnam (Arush Nand as a child, Brandon Ingram as a teen), who is warned as a child that he is at risk of being ostracised if he remains a “funny boy” into adulthood, and forced to play sports instead of hanging out with girls. As the years pass, the tensions between the Tamil and Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka only increases, and Arjie begins to understand what his father meant by calling him a funny boy all those years ago, as he falls for a classmate in the Sinhalese school where he’s been enrolled.
Adapted from Shyam Selvadurai’s eponymous 1994 novel, previously adapted for Canadian radio by Mehta herself, Funny Boy broadly follows events while also downplaying and diluting the wider historical context. This is most significant in a subplot regarding an ill-fated marriage proposal between a Tamil and Sinhalese couple, but the generalisation with which it aims to capture that cultural tension is unsatisfying elsewhere. A scene where Arjie confronts bullies at his new school feels particularly inauthentic in this sense, and — like most moments where cultural tensions are brought to the fore — is swiftly swept back under the carpet until it becomes relevant to the narrative again. It’s moments like this where you can see the bare bones of a richer narrative that actively explores these tensions, rather than reducing them to simplistic story beats. Needless to say, having not been familiar with the source material prior to seeing this film, Selvadurai’s novel has been swiftly added to my GoodReads list.
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As for the gay coming-of-age story, a decade long path to self realisation and eventual coming out amidst conflict, Mehta closely adapts the novel’s version of events, which feel unshakably cliched in her hands. Although the period setting can’t be discounted when assessing this (along with the near 30 years since the publication of the source material), it does feel particularly outdated — a boy starting to realise that he’s gay via being ostracised for not liking sports, and playing dress up in women’s clothes while playing with friends, isn’t exactly the most novel of tropes. Even for a film that’s unashamedly broad in its melodrama, it does feel like the past decade plus of mainstream adjacent LGBTQ cinema has made a coming out story in this vein feel like a relic of a different era, even to general audiences. Couple this with the diluting of the cultural specificity in the background and you’re left with a film that, in its shameless attempt to be universal, has rendered itself entirely out of touch with its subject matter.
This is all a shame, as Funny Boy on paper sounds like a worthy addition to the recent canon of queer self actualisation films. Its earlier stages, set in the 1970s, don’t feel entirely dissimilar from Mariana Rondón’s 2013 drama Bad Hair, a Venezuelan coming-of-age story about a nine-year-old boy whose frustrations with his curly hair cause his mother’s deep rooted homophobia to come to the surface — a tension he never begins to understand. There are also shades of Tomboy, Celine Sciamma’s exquisite sophomore film that tenderly examines a child coming to terms with their own gender identity, and Oliver Hermanus’ recent Moffie, a brutal tale of self realisation set during an Apartheid era conflict. But what Funny Boy lacks that makes these films work is a cultural specificity, as they feature rich character studies that don’t oversimplify their inner tensions to appeal to a broader audience, and are more engaging dramatic works as a result. It may be unfair to compare a melodramatic work to films that are either quieter or grittier, but it was hard to shake the comparisons with filmmakers who did this better from my mind.
Funny Boy may seem groundbreaking on paper — telling a queer coming of age story in a country where being gay remains punishable by a 10-year jail sentence — but there’s nothing particularly original about this overly familiar and largely reductive adaptation of an acclaimed novel.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.