Directed by longtime industry vet Deepa Mehta, Funny Boy is Canada’s official entry for the 2021 Oscars. Mehta’s forbidden wartime love story falls shy of excellence in a year stacked with rousing and provocative world cinema. The heartfelt drama leans too heavily on LGBTQ+ stereotypes to convey its protagonist’s struggles with gender conformity. Set in Sri Lanka across two time periods, this coming-of-age story centers on child and adult versions of Arjie Chelvaratnam (Arush Nand and Brandon Ingram, respectively). His tragic tale reflects the added pressure of being gay during the island nation’s devastating 1983 civil war.
Arjie is Tamil, the minority ethnic group in Sri Lanka that faced persistent discrimination from the majority Sinhalese population. After losing their fight for an independent state in the North, younger Tamils formed a resistance organization known as the Tamil Tigers to counter the rising oppression. Their formation became the catalyst to civil war. From 1983 until 2009, millions of Tamil families fled the country to become refugees in various welcoming nations worldwide. The durability of the Tamil family unit during these violent times was paramount to survival. Thus, Arjie is constantly reminded to remember his place as a “heterosexual” man, or else he risks fracturing his familial fortress of safety.
Arjie’s saga begins with revulsion. After swapping genders for a mock wedding, the 8-year-old boy incurs the outrage of adult onlookers. Although seen as a harmless kids’ game, judgment from their community lead Arjie’s parents (Nimmi Harasgama and Ali Kazmi) to pull him aside and warn him of the consequences of such behavior. Embracing his feminine inclinations will lead him on a path to becoming a “bad man,” his father instructs. As of now, Arjie is given the derogatory name of “funny boy,” implying a homosexual-in-the-making.
Mehta employs effective time jumps from his mother’s perspective whenever she sees her son at the dinner table. When he’s still a boy, she envisions him as an awkward adult, struggling to hide his true nature. The reverse occurs over a decade later, underscoring the problematic tendency of parents to idealize their child rather than embrace who they are at any age.
Arjie’s only ally is his Aunt Radha (Agam Darshi), who celebrates him for the flamboyant, intelligent, artistic individual he is. Though Radha isn’t the only family member to “see” Arjie, she exhibits tolerance while the rest allow phobias to override compassion. Mesmerized by Radha’s bravery in doing as she pleases — including carrying on a taboo love affair with a young Sinhalese man named Anil (Ruvin De Silva) — Arjie aspires to one day emulating her confidence. Experiencing life without shame is a dream Arjie must sacrifice until racial tensions between the Tamil and Sinhalese deescalate. His parents, grandmother (Seema Biswas), and siblings rely on Arjie’s brimming enthusiasm and sense of justice more than they’d ever let on.
There’s a noticeable void when Radha exits the narrative quite suddenly, making it much harder for Arjie to escape the secret anchoring him down. Light pours into his melancholic soul when he meets his first love, Shehan (Rehan Mudannayake), a wealthy Sinhalese student Arjie attends university with. Before they know it, the virgin lovebirds are sharing more than just books.
Mehta realistically captures the fear that comes from your first sexual encounter with someone of the same gender. The initial excitement can turn into alarm and sometimes even dread after the deed is done. You’ve placed yourself in a socially vulnerable position, potentially risking your life according to the laws of certain countries. At the same time, there’s liberation in finally validating your biological urges. No one can take away your profound sense of bliss the next morning, feeling the furthest from confused you’ve ever felt.
It’s a shame that Arjie and Shehan’s relationship isn’t given the depth it deserves. They bond over David Bowie, Annie Lennox, and other gay icons and iconography, but the pair are pretty unremarkable when disassociated from LGBTQ+ pop culture. Their lovers’ quarrels are straight out of Shakespeare, and Arjie himself is more a stand-in for closeted men trapped in war-torn, anti-gay nations than a fully realized character. We don’t see his creativity flourish, and the closest we see him subvert family expectations is when he pulls off an impressive tennis serve.
Funny Boy ultimately spreads itself thin, unable to juggle both personal identity crisis and Sri Lanka’s descent into civil war to an effective degree. As significant and illuminating as Arjie’s story is, its conventional family spats, melodramatic reveals, and surface characterizations confuse the audience into assuming they’re watching a Lifetime movie version of Sri Lanka’s brutal past.