“Don’t mess with the grand diva,” says 8-year-old Arjie, usually in private or under his breath, to a world determined to mess with him from all sides. Taught to him by an understanding, open-minded aunt, it’s a self-defense mantra that sees him through various forms of bullying as he comes to terms with his nascent homosexuality — no easy cross to bear in a conservative Sri Lankan household through the 1970s and 1980s.
It’s of less use, however, when his life is more violently rocked by the first bloody stirrings of the Sri Lankan Civil War: Both gay and Tamil, young Arjie is a doubly imperiled minority. Adapted from Shyam Selvadurai’s well-regarded semi-autobiographical novel, Deepa Mehta’s “Funny Boy” ambitiously braids internal and external conflict, familial and national strife, to engrossing if somewhat heavily condensed effect. Selected as Canada’s official Oscar entry, it’s the Indo-Canadian helmer’s most rewarding and accessible work since 2006’s nominated “Water,” and is sure to find a receptive global audience as it hits Netflix this week.
26 years after the publication of his novel, Selvadurai has collaborated with Mehta on the adaptation. The result is more conventionally constructed than the source, a bildungsroman told via six distinct vignettes from the protagonist’s early childhood and adolescence, also marking the shifting state of the nation in stark jumps. As a film, “Funny Boy” is more fluid but less detailed from one act to the next, with a diffuse array of subplots that have limited room to breathe in a tight 109-minute runtime. Perhaps the source would have been best served by a miniseries format; as it is, it’s still a spirited, enveloping evocation of a challenging time and place, aided immeasurably by vibrant on-location shooting in the former Sri Lankan capital of Colombo.
We first encounter Arjie (played as a preteen by the winning Arush Nand) in more idyllic times, romping through verdant scenery with friends and cousins as they celebrate a make-believe wedding, with Arjie himself — in ruby lipstick and a makeshift veil — playing the part of the bride. Elder relatives cluck their disapproval, euphemistically labeling him a “funny boy.” His gentle-natured mother (Nimmi Harasgama) is less perturbed, though neither does she rush to the lad’s defense when his straitlaced father (Ali Kazmi) scolds him for his “girly tendencies,” demanding he play cricket with his older brother instead.
When his dad’s more cosmopolitan sister Radha (the luminous Agam Darshi) arrives home from her studies in Toronto, laden with feminist theory, Leonard Cohen records and stories of debauched revels, Arjie finally has an ally. She, too, falls foul of her family’s rigid gender-based expectations, resisting the machinations of an arranged marriage to a Canada-based suitor, and instead falling for Anil (Ruvin De Silva), a bohemian fellow member of her local drama club. But she is Tamil, and he is Sinhalese; the union is forbidden by family on both sides, giving the naive Arjie his first sense of the tribal warfare that will soon plunge Sri Lanka into disaster.
Radha is promptly bundled off to Canada with her undesired husband, and with her, “Funny Boy” loses a little of its spark. Darshi and Nand’s early scenes of freewheeling, secret-sharing, nail-painting companionship are the film’s warmest and most naturally observed, beside which the remaining family drama feels comparatively stiff and determined, with the boy’s gradual coming-out narrative unfolding in much the way you’d expect. First love balances out her absence: Cut to 17-year-old Arjie (now played by Brandon Ingram) being sent to a well-to-do boys’ prep school, where any parental hopes of him straightening out are dashed by charismatic Sinhalese classmate Shehan (Rehan Mudannayake), who soon introduces Arjie to the decadent thrills of new-wave pop and tender sex.
Liberating as this relationship is — complete with lushly lit shots of the two boys dancing naked to the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” — it’s not explored with great particularity or depth, and soon feels cramped by the film’s escalating political concerns. To some degree, this narrative crowding is deliberate, in line with the protagonist’s struggle to reconcile seismic personal developments with a looming threat to the very survival of his family. The result, however, is blunted on both sides, with Arjie’s love story adhering to familiar queer coming-of-age beats, while the more visceral effects of the Tamil-Sinhalese conflicts on his family are softened a bit from Selvadurai’s novel. An unfocused subplot involving a Tamil Tiger relative and his potentially intimate bond with Arjie’s mother is all but lost in the melee — “Funny Boy” could have taken at least another 20 minutes to untangle its tales at no cost to its lively, episodic pull.
Even at its most rushed, it’s an attractive journey, gilded in summery light throughout by Douglas Koch’s camera, while Errol Kelly’s handsome, mossy production design and a strident, culture-clashing score by Howard Shore add additional polish. Yet Mehta’s most striking formal gambit, which could have been pushed further, is a simple one: occasionally swapping Arjie’s younger and older incarnations in a single shot, for mere seconds at a time. Thus does the past fleetingly intrude on the present, and vice versa, demonstrating the consistent, defiant identity of the funny boy — or the grand diva — as the rest of his life tumbles into turmoil.