Writers: Cole Meyers and Oliver Page
Director: Max Currie
This tender drama about a trans man making his way home to a small town in New Zealand known for its dairy farms packs perhaps a little too many issues into its 90-minute running time. But despite its over-ambition in trying to reflect modern life, Rūrangi is a good-hearted drama centred on the search for authentic selves.
‘In milk we trust’ says that mechanic who drives Caz back to Rūrangi after he has crashed his car in a ditch; they drive through landscape that Caz hasn’t seen for 10 years. When he arrives at the charity shop his old friend Anahera works at, she doesn’t recognise him. Caz, who fled Rūrangi as a girl, has now returned a man. His father doesn’t recognise him either and can’t forgive him for not coming home when Caz’s mother died. It’s not that Caz didn’t know: he sent flowers, but this makes his absence even worse, his father confesses.
This already seems enough story, but writers Cole Meyers and Oliver Page bring in many other subplots, not all of which are successful. One that works is Anahera’s attempts to reclaim her Maori heritage and we see her practicing te reo, and attending lessons to help her speak the language. As the teacher explains, once Maori people were made to feel bad if they spoke teo reo, but now they are made to feel bad if they don’t.
A semi-successful narrative is that belonging to Caz’s father, Gerald, who is trying to ban pesticides in the town, believing that they caused his wife’s terminal cancer. For a few minutes early on in the film, there are suggestions that Rūrangi will be a low-key companion to Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters, which featured Mark Ruffalo as a lawyer who takes on a chemical company dumping toxic waste. But even though other farmers come to check the quality of Gerald’s pastures, this storyline is finally used for other purposes.
Rūrangi was originally a five-part TV show, and in this format the multiple storylines would have been more comfortable, especially the one charting Caz’s relationship with a famous rugby player. But in a feature film, these narratives seem soapy and they interrupt the core story of a trans person being accepted by family and friends, for Caz, a constant process of coming out. When the focus does shift to father and son, resolutions come too quickly and too easily.
Compensating for the unsatisfactory plot somewhat is Elz Carrad’s performance as Caz. Carrad is excellent in showing the fear Caz feels in coming home to his childhood house, where his mother has kept the bedroom just as he left it. Carrad also reveals Caz’s looser side as an activist back in Auckland where he has a new group of supportive friends. Home beckons him, nevertheless.
Carrad’s best scenes are with Jem, an equally impressive Arlo Green, where their old heterosexual and cisgendered relationship has to me remade, The awkwardness that both portray is wonderful. Almost stealing the film is Awhina-Rose Ashby as Anahera, the down-to-earth lesbian who dreams, like Caz, of belonging. She shines in each of her scenes, though her parallel storyline feels sketchy compared to her best friend’s.
Even with its faults, Rūrangi is still an engaging watch and it’s hard not to be won over by the three main characters, all sensitively drawn. If a few of the plots had been scrapped in the transition from TV to film, Rūrangi’s main story would have had more time to breathe.
BFI Flare runs here from 17 March to 28 March 2021