A coming-of-age story set in Sri Lanka during the leadup to the decades-long Sri Lankan Civil War, “Funny Boy” is strongest when it considers how heteronormative gender roles and patriarchal thinking quash individual desire and expression. Characters aren’t as nuanced as they could be, yet vivacious performances from cast members Arush Nand and Agam Darshi elevate the archetypes for which they’re responsible (“girly” boy and unruly woman, respectively). But as an exploration of the myriad factors driving the ongoing conflict between Sri Lanka’s two primary ethnic groups, the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, “Funny Boy” too often makes the most predictable narrative choice. Viewers with an awareness of the war—the Sinhalese-led pogroms against the Tamils, or the Tamil Tigers’ guerrilla tactics—will often be able to guess where certain scenes or character introductions are leading. That’s not to say that “Funny Boy” is some sort of puzzle to be unlocked, but that the film often depicts its characters and historical events so broadly that the cultural divides in Sri Lanka or the negative effect of traditional thinking regularly go unexamined. Without that follow-up, “Funny Boy” often lacks impact when it needs it the most.
Beginning in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, in 1974, two years after the island nation finally shook off British control, “Funny Boy” follows a well-to-do Tamil family and their middle child, eight-year-old Arjie (played first by Nand and then later, when the character is a teenager, by Brandon Ingram). To Arjie’s mother (Nimmi Harasgama), her son is creative, musically talented, and adventurous; to his father (Ali Kazmi), however, his “funny” behavior is a cause for concern. No one ever says the word “gay,” but that’s obviously the fear here, so all-consuming a response by Arjie’s father that everything his son does is a problem. “Why does everyone say I’m ‘funny’? What does that mean?” Arjie asks his parents in one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, but his father will not budge on trying to expunge all perceived femininity from his son. Arjie will play cricket, Arjie will pray more, and Arjie will grow up to be the man his father wants him to be.
Arjie’s only ally is his aunt Radha (Darshi), who returns from college in Toronto to the judgmental family who hasn’t changed one bit in her absence. Forced into an arranged marriage against her will while in love with another man, Radha becomes Arjie’s closest familial supporter: encouraging his passion for music and dance, painting his toenails (“a joyful secret,” she calls the berry-colored polish she applies for him), and drawing him into her illicit romance with a Sinhalese man by asking him to deliver letters between them. What happens to Radha, and the choices she makes as violence between the two ethnic groups grows, changes Arjie’s path forward. When “Funny Boy” jumps ahead in time to Arjie’s teenage years attending the Christian boys’ school Victoria Academy, the political situation is more fraught. Bullying at the school plays out entirely between ethnic lines. Arjie’s father, who now runs a posh resort, offers safe haven to a family friend, Jegan (Shivantha Wijesinha), who used to be a Tamil Tiger. And when Arjie locks eyes with Shehan (Rehan Mudannayake), a Sinhalese classmate who quotes Oscar Wilde and has posters of David Bowie hanging in his bedroom, the memory of what happened to Arjie’s aunt when she fell in love with someone despised by her family is never far from his mind.