Often films with a message are so busy driving that message home that they become one-note. Rūrangi, which plays this month’s virtual 35th BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival, doesn’t fall into that trap. By placing this transgender homecoming tale into a broader, intersectional context of identity—gender, sexual, cultural—it rises above them to become a stronger, bolder film.
Transgender activist Caz Davis (Elz Carrad) left home a decade ago, escaping the confines of the small farming community in Rūrangi, New Zealand to the city lights of Auckland to start his new life. Returning home to try to reconnect with his father, who he hasn’t seen since he transitioned, Caz has to reconcile with the life he left behind and the people he may have hurt on the way.
Screenwriters Cole Meyers and Oliver Page set Caz up for an emotional rollercoaster. By the time he reaches Rūrangi he is already burnt out from his tireless work as an activist and the complicated end of a major relationship. Sleep deprived, he crashes his car, forcing him to stay in Rūrangi longer than planned. These layers give Carrad a lot of furtive ground in which to grow a rich characterisation.
When he comes to face-to-face with his ex-boyfriend Jem (Arlo Green), who had planned out a life together with Caz only to be suddenly left behind, there is a real conflict between Caz’s educated activist side and his emotional side, trying to empathize with Jem and rationally explain his reasons, while also feeling a mix of guilt, sadness, and pride in his own journey.
Caz’s relationship with his father Gerald (Kirk Torrance) is equally as nuanced. Gerald has to process Caz’s transition while also being furious with him for missing his mother’s funeral. As always, Caz’s transition is central to the story, but never stands in isolation. It plays out with different tones throughout the film.
One of Rūrangi’s great strengths is its no-nonsense, Antipodean humour. For all the heart-wrenching moments of pain and reckoning, there are brilliant notes of laughter scattered throughout as Caz and his old best friend Anahera (Awhina-Rose Ashby) rebuild their friendship, and Jem deals with his conflicted emotions, finding himself attracted to Caz but unsure whether it’s just old feelings resurfacing or whether he’s attracted to Caz’s masculinity.
Everyone in Rūrangi is finding their place in a changing world. Anahera is connecting to her heritage later in life, Caz’s father has become an advocate for environmental issues after years of using dangerous chemicals, and each story is tinged with a sense of guilt.
Rūrangi ends abruptly, which I found frustrating, wanting to immerse myself in the final moment longer, but that is a minor quibble after one of the most enjoyable and well-rounded films with a trans character as its centre that I’ve seen in years. A BFI Flare must-see.
By Chad Armstrong
Rūrangi plays the virtual 35th BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival March 17-28th 2021. For more details and to purchase tickets and passes head to the official Flare website.
The film is currently in cinemas in New Zealand and will stream as a series in the US on Hulu, with a second season already greenlit.