Rūrangi, created by writer Cole Meyers, director Max Currie and producer Craig Gainsborough, is one of the standout entries at this year’s BFI Flare. Cut from the 2020 web series of the same name, the film follows a young transgender man who is forced to come to terms with a difficult past upon returning to his hometown.
Rūrangi’s premise is, at first glance, simple. After a ten-year absence, trans activist Caz (Elz Carrad) returns to his childhood home, the small and close-knit rural town of Rūrangi. Yet Caz, who’s still reeling from the death of his boyfriend (Sonny Tupu), only transitioned after leaving. And in a display of really quite staggeringly poor communication skills, he hasn’t come out to anyone in Rūrangi—including his own father.
Considerable awkwardness ensues, not least because no-one recognises him. His high school best friend Anahera (Āwhina Rose Henare Ashby) and boyfriend Jem (Arlo Green) are surprised but accepting. His father Gerald (Kirk Torrence), however, is furious with Caz for not being there when his mother died. Jem, meanwhile, is disconcerted to realise that he’s still attracted to Caz—despite firmly identifying as straight. This re-contextualising of relationships is crucial to the film, as Caz struggles to find his place in the town while firmly asserting his true identity.
The film’s biggest strength is its excellent performances. In particular, Carrad makes an outstanding screen debut with an understated yet deeply heartfelt performance. Even when insecurity leaves the character at his most awkward and repressed, there’s a wealth of emotion behind the actor’s eyes. Meanwhile, Ashby is the steady and warm, yet fierce and defiant beating heart of the cast as Anahera, an out and proud lesbian who’s trying to reconnect with her Māori roots. Green, for his part, is fabulously adorkable and and relatable, constantly dropping things whenever Caz is around. And Torrence is endearingly exasperating as Gerald, a stubborn but caring man who has to grapple with his and his late wife’s failure to support the son they didn’t know they had. Torrence and Carrad’s father-son dynamic, and the latter’s romantic chemistry with Green, are both highlights of the story.
All of this is helped, of course, by Meyers’ excellent script, which deserves as much praise for its thoughtful, naturalistic dialogue as for its refusal to use Caz’s deadname. (He refuses to use it and when one character does, a cacophony of distorted music prevents us from hearing.)
Rūrangi is, however, full of the shaky camera work and somewhat patchwork editing stereotypical of indie projects. While this often makes it refreshingly unpretentious, it also makes the film’s pacing choppy and slow, despite its relatively short runtime. The film, moreover, appears to have caught a touch of too many sub plots–itis. Specifically, Anahera’s attempts to learn Māori are certainly interesting and the parallels with Caz and Jem’s identity crises are obvious, even if it is annoying to see her sexuality hand waved by comparison. Still, it gets in the way of the main story. Most frustratingly, Caz’s relationship with and grief over his late partner aren’t given nearly as much time and attention as they should have been.
On a far more positive note, Rūrangi is a small but triumphant victory for trans representation in film. The mainstream industry has an appalling track record here: if trans and gender-diverse characters aren’t psychotic, perverted murderers, they’re either caricatures or doomed to trauma and tragedy. And even in sympathetic narratives—such as Boys Don’t Cry and The Danish Girl—trans characters are frequently played by cisgender actors, usually cis men playing trans women or vice versa. This has the hugely damaging side effect of implying, for instance, that Lili Elbe was no more a woman than Eddie Redmayne is.
Yet Rūrangi couldn’t be more different. The trans characters, including Caz, are played by trans actors. Meyers himself is trans and non-binary, and consulted an advisory panel of trans people who are leaders and experts in their community. As a result, the film is much more authentic and all the better for it: as Meyers himself has stated, “you can’t know what you can’t know”. Caz’s gender identity is not a costume; his struggles and small victories aren’t inspiration porn for straight, cisgender viewers. Through Carrad, he’s a gay trans man, an activist, raw, vulnerable, messy, flawed, funny, loving and above all, human. Scarlett Johansson and Halle Berry, for all their talent, could never have even come close.
On the film’s website, Meyers is quoted as saying, “We’re not interested in seeing another story told about us […] We want to see stories on screen made by us—the authenticity of our voices, the wholeness of our lives, and the way we truly experience ourselves.” And Rūrangi, judged against this criteria, is a resounding success.
It’s true that Rūrangi is imperfect; when the web series premieres on Hulu, many viewers will probably excited to see what happens when the storylines have more room to breathe. However, a few flaws don’t detract from what is, at its heart, a unique, authentic and genuinely beautiful film.
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