Review: Rūrangi

Directed by Max Currie and co-written by Cole Meyers and Oliver Page, after skipping town a decade ago, transgender activist Caz Davis returns to the remote, politically divided dairy community of Rurangi, hoping to reconnect with his estranged father, who hasn’t heard from him since before he transitioned. Starring: Elz Carrad, Arlo Green, Awhina-Rose Ashby, Kirk Torrance, Aroha Rawson, Renee Sheridan and Ross Harper.

The idea of someone returning to their small, very traditional hometown after transitioning sounds like a recipe for melodrama, abuse and conflict but these filmmakers thankfully didn’t take that route. Instead what they created is remarkably understated, for the most part it’s a very low-key drama that deals with family issues. There are some typical prejudicial remarks about transgender people but it primarily delves into Caz’s (Carrad) abandonment of his family. He made the decision that was best for his mental health and survival but that doesn’t mean his absence didn’t harshly impact the people he left behind.

However, the writing’s key problem is that it starts a lot of conversations that it doesn’t finish, which is why it makes a lot of sense that it would be made into a TV series, there’s much more to explore. For instance, Caz’s past relationship is featured repeatedly but given it takes such a heavy toll on him, it deserved to have more time dedicated to it than just spontaneous flashbacks throughout the film. There’s also the case of Anahera’s internal conflict with trying to live a modern life but also respect her heritage, leaving her feeling caught in the middle, without a real place in the community. It’s a significant issue to tackle and when doing so through a supporting character, there’s not enough time to do it justice, it’s a secondary plot and fairly simply handled. These issues do add to the film’s depth and sincerity as a whole but if it had given them more space to be explored, it would have pushed the film a lot further.

What does take its emotions up a notch is the direction and cinematography, they instantly build an affecting atmosphere which is carried throughout the film. It’s a tone that’s earnest and sad but also surprisingly sweet. There’s a satisfyingly flowing pace to it, it brings through different aspects of the drama slowly but purposefully, it’s not throwing everything at you at once, there’s a natural progression at work. It also takes advantage of the inherently atmospheric nature of its setting, it allows itself to not be too inwardly focused, it takes a step back and appreciates the bigger picture to really enhance the tone. All of those aspects working together give it a weight and sincerity, its story could go further but they created the perfect atmosphere for it to exist in.

The performances are extremely consistent across the board, leading the charge is Elz Carrad’s Caz, a vulnerable, sensitive and emotional performance that is the perfect centre to connect all the pieces. Awhina-Rose Ashby brings a strong personality and generosity to the film, she’s sarcastic and funny but also a complex character, one it would have been great to see even more from. Kirk Torrance brings the classic stoic father, a hard exterior but a soft centre that’s eventually revealed. Arlo Green is the cherry on top with his awkward, clumsy but sweetheart of a character Jem, he has such a lovely charm and kindness to him. Green and Carrad have a very natural chemistry, they’re sweet to watch and add a lighter, romantic element to balance out the film.

Rūrangi is a surprisingly understated and moving story about acceptance and family. It’s filled with sincere performances that add genuine charm to its respectfully and sensitively handled story of transgender issues. It didn’t have the space or time to really delve into all the avenues that its story opened up but it does still have an emotional tale to tell. It shows a path for dramas surrounding trans rights to provide viewers with a way to understand their perspective and take the place of the all the negativity that has existed in cinema before it.

Verdict: ✯✯✯½

Reviewed as part of BFI Flare – Available to watch until the 28th March

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