Canada's submission for this year's Foreign Language Film Oscar unfolds mostly in English, and against the backdrop of Sri Lanka in the 1970s and 80s. Those aren't the only boundaries Funny Boy means to jostle and rub up against. Deepa Mehta's latest, adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by the Canadian-Sri Lankan novelist Shyam Selvadurai, opens with a wedding, that traditional endpoint for romantic comedies and dramas. Yet this wedding party is composed of kids playing dress-up, and if you look closely, you'll spot the role of bride-to-be is being played by a boy, Arjie (Arush Nand), wearing lipstick beneath his makeshift veil. Arjie is a source of some concern to his parents, especially his sternly conservative father (Ali Razmi), huffing to his wife (Nimmi Harasgama) about the lad's "girly tendency". Soon, however, this relatively well-to-do Tamil clan have bigger problems than pre-teen wardrobe experimentation, as the growing divide between Sri Lanka's Tamil and Sinhalese populations carries the country into a long, bloody civil war, framed here as exactly the kind of bull-headed macho nonsense we might avoid if we were a shade more relaxed about letting our boys wear dresses and make-up at formative moments. The film thus shapes up as a throwback to that Miramax-boosted strain of world cinema that became so prominent (particularly around awards time) in the 1990s: a work that sets the personal against the wider political landscape, and views major social upheaval from the perspective of a chubby-cheeked cherub found on the very brink of adulthood.Which is to say you won't be unduly disappointed if you approach Mehta's film expecting foursquare historical drama. It may have been a tragic commonplace in antebellum Colombo, but it does feel a little conventional, in movie terms, that Arjie's teenage crush Shehan (Rehan Mudannayake) should hail from a family on the other side of the social divide (and, indeed, that the couple's makeout song should be something as familiar as The Police's "Every Breath You Take"). If it more than occasionally feels overstuffed and arrhythmic - like a miniseries waiting to happen - Funny Boy does at least have the advantage of telling a fresh story in an underfilmed setting. Here is the backstory such recent productions as Jacques Audiard's Dheepan and the music documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. had to address from the comparatively safe harbour of European soil. Selvadurai has handed his director a cleaner adaptation of his own work than Salman Rushdie did on Mehta's 2012 misfire Midnight's Children, and the director evokes this milieu with a flexibility missing from that altogether stiff picture. With cinematographer Douglas Koch, she shoots handheld, lending a greater immediacy to the youthful rebellions of the early scenes, and the sudden explosions of violence that pre-empt the conflict to come.
The film is never allowed to settle into period sedateness, because the world it's describing is fundamentally unstable. A country club's afternoon calm is disrupted by loud sirens; people disappear or get displaced. We see flickers of the teenage Arjie (Brandon Ingram) in the childhood scenes, and of the younger Arjie during the character's adolescence - the man in the boy, and the boy in the man. That device is one of Mehta's bolder formal choices, and it's evocative enough, though it points up a certain disparity in the casting: Ingram and his contemporaries give broadly solid performances, but the cheek and spark of the junior players - crashing into scenes, dissing each other - are missed as the film goes on. That may be the point: it's hard to hold onto your inner child when the world is spinning so. Yet one promising subplot appears to have been a victim of cutting-room ruthlessness: the fate of Arjie's older cousin and childhood playmate Radha. Established in the course of the first act (not least by Agam Darshi's candescent performance) as a major character - an aspirant actress who resists her folks' efforts to pair her up, while teaching her crossdressing young charge to embrace his inner diva - she's obliged to renounce her true love before being married off against her will; adding insult to injury, the film then shunts her offscreen for an hour. As an Indian filmmaker working in snowy Canada, Mehta demonstrates an abundant, natural sympathy with those driven into exile, like Arjie and the author who created him; but I couldn't help but feel this restless, jittery work may have overlooked an even more potent drama nestling in this story's margins.
Funny Boy will be available to stream via Netflix from Thursday.