Set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war, “Funny Boy” centers on a protagonist who is effectively fighting on two fronts.
Arjie — played by Arush Nand as a boy when the movie begins in 1974 and by Brandon Ingram around the start of the war in 1983 — is regarded as “funny” because he likes to wear makeup and doesn’t like sports. As he soon realizes, he is gay in a country that criminalizes homosexuality. He’s also Tamil, which means he belongs to Sri Lanka’s ethnic minority, although his family’s wealth insulates it to a degree from the toll of the violence roiling between the Tamils and the majority Sinhalese.
When Arjie is a boy, his father (Ali Kazmi) pushes him to avoid “girly things” and instead work on his cricket. But Arjie is encouraged by a cool aunt, Radha (Agam Darshi), who helps cultivate his interest in theater and teaches him to put nail polish on his toes where no one can see. In what becomes a motif, the director, Deepa Mehta, cuts to shots of older Arjie sitting in his younger’s self’s place at crucial moments like this one.
Radha wants to marry a Sinhalese man — he’s an admirer of Gloria Steinem, he says by way of flirtation. There’s a brief, tense scene of the families sitting down with one another and waffling between hostility and comity. (“If you come near my daughter I will kill you.” “Would you like a biscuit?”)
But the movie’s brightness dims — for Arjie and for viewers — when Radha moves to Toronto and mostly out of the film. After that, the sprawling, intermittently engaging narrative (based on a novel by Shyam Selvadurai, who wrote the screenplay with Mehta) toggles awkwardly between the general and the specific.
The film springs to life whenever it sticks close to Arjie’s story. He falls for a Sinhalese schoolmate, Shehan (Rehan Mudannayake), who shows him his collection of David Bowie posters and tells him that “people like us exist” — abroad, he adds, “where it’s not illegal.” There are also some lovely pop music interludes, as when Arjie and Shehan, alone in a large hall, dance to “Every Breath You Take.”
Mehta’s elaborate long takes contribute to the general sense of tumult, but the film never fully shakes the sense of stating the obvious. Ethnic conflicts tear relationships apart. Being gay is normal. Cricket doesn’t have to be all that.
Not rated. In Tamil, English and Sinhalese, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. Watch on Netflix.