Based on an autobiographical novel by Shyam Selvadurai, this exquisitely shot Sri Lankan drama traces a young boy’s coming of age over the course of a decade. And because Funny Boy is so skilfully written and directed, the story’s themes transcend this gorgeous location and lively characters. Viewers anywhere on earth will be able to resonate with the issues the film raises, especially anyone who has ever felt like they were somehow different from the people who raised them.
Acclaimed Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta brings an artistic approach to her storytelling, complemented by cinematographer Douglas Koch’s beautiful images. Mehta worked on the screenplay with Selvadurai, and the attention to detail is astonishing: this is clearly a story that comes from personal memory, which makes it that much easier to identify with, even with such a colourful setting.
It opens in 1974 Colombo, where 8-year-old Arjie (Arush Nand) is constantly disciplined by his middle-class Tamil parents for being “funny”, such as when he stars as the bride in the cousins’ wedding play or refuses to play sports with his big brother. But his free-spirited Aunt Radha (Agam Darshi) has lived abroad and fully understands him. She encourages him to be himself and pursue his passions. And she knows a thing or two about breaking rules, since she’s been forbidden from seeing her Sinhalese boyfriend.
Nine years later, social tensions between the Tamils and Sinhalese are becoming explosively violent. And when the teen Arjie (now Brandon Ingram) heads off to university, he finds that he can live a much more open life. Although he’s about to encounter a new kind of prejudice when he falls for male Sinhalese classmate Shehan (Rehan Mudannayake).
In assembling the story, Mehta smoothly allows the past and present to flow into each other, revealing thoughts and feelings that echo in Arjie’s mind over this decade. This also allows the film to smoothly blend his sexuality with a series of political issues that have a personal impact on him. So after a violent civil war breaks out in 1983, there’s a real sense of freedom as Arjie’s family frees to Canada, where a young gay man is legal and accepted.
The actors stir plenty of attitude into their roles, making even the smaller side characters vividly engaging. Both Nand and Ingram provide terrific energy as Arjie, a likeable boy with an open-handed approach to life. So when darker things happen to him, the actors bring deep feeling to the scenes. Later, Ingram and Mudannayake have a charming romance, sparking off each other to generate some strong chemistry, even as both young guys know that there are some enormous obstacles to their happiness.
As it continues, this film becomes a particularly powerful exploration of how a plurality of beliefs can not only coexist peacefully but even make society stronger. By contrast, bigotry and fear have a horrific impact on everyone. Mehta is gifted at balancing these moods, shifting between highs and lows while allowing the audience to feel everything. So even if there are huge social themes at play, it’s the personal side of this timely story that makes it essential.
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Funny Boy is now streaming on Netflix