With a log line like “An Indian father takes his transgender son on a road trip across South Africa to rescue his son’s long-lost mother from a rehab clinic”, Runs in the Family already sounds like a good time.
Throw in some capers, a heavy dose of drag (paging Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) and a genuinely heartwarming central relationship and Runs in the Family is an easy sell.
Writer and lead star Gabe Gabriel has crafted an emotionally charged, but incredibly pleasant road trip comedy from something resembling a Mad Libs premise. River Storm (Gabriel) is a trans man with an ambitious plan: he and his best friend will enter a local drag competition and use the winnings to get top surgery. In the days leading up to the event, however, River’s father Varun Chetty (Ace Bhatti) asks him to come on a road trip to break River’s mother, Monica (Diaan Lawrenson), out of a rehab facility.
It turns out that a family member has to sign Monica out and since Varun isn’t technically married to her, the responsibility falls on River. Despite his trepidation, River ultimately relents and the pair set off on the multi day journey.
Runs in the Family works so well because for most of its run time, there is very little conflict. The drag competition adds a ticking clock element, but it’s not looming over the narrative so much as it offers a glimpse of where the climax will occur.
There’s also some degree of uncertainty about how – or if – Monica will accept River since she only knew him as a baby girl. We learn that Monica left shortly after he was born and while River clearly resents her for leaving, a part of him still wants Monica’s approval…or at least to show her that she was wrong to leave him and Varun.
It should be noted that concerns aren’t related to River’s authentic identity (he’s incredibly confident and comfortable in his skin); River’s issue with Monica are more reflective of his uncertainty with letting a new person into his incredibly supportive found family.
While getting to and from the rehab center is the impetus for the narrative, it’s clear very early on that the heart of the film is the bond between the trans man and the family member who stuck around. River may want to confront Monica, but the real reason he agrees to go on the trip is because he loves his father.
The affection the pair have for each other is far and away the best part of the film. Unlike so many other queer films, Runs in the Family doesn’t feature a coming out scene, romantic confusion, or discomfort with being queer. If anything, the film adheres to the conventions of broad comedies or family sitcoms: River is mostly embarrassed by his father’s affection for him, but that love and support is unconditional. It’s genuinely heartwarming.
The lengths to which Varun will go to support his boy only become more evident as the film progresses. Even in the wobbly final act, when the film loses sight of its emotionally grounded narrative and succumbs to a sensational, dramatic finale, Varun’s dedication to helping his son never wavers.
In the grand tradition of road trip movies, watching the pair connect over the course of the journey is most of the fun. Unlike other films in the subgenre, however, there’s very little conflict or misunderstanding driving the narrative (at least initially), which means that roughly the first half of Runs in the Family focuses on rich character work and light hearted fare.
This includes subverting expectations. Traditionally narratives centered around long distance travel will throw in a flat tire, stolen vehicles or wacky hitchhiking adventures. Few of these tired stereotypes occur and never in the way the audience might expect. Even when comedy staples do occur, such as a recurring bit where the driver’s window falls down unexpectedly, it feels less obvious and egregious than usual.
Instead the audience is left with a father and son relationship that feels unparalleled; the love and affection that Varun and River have for each other is achingly rich, warm and beautifully performed by Gabriel and Bhatti (the latter is honestly a revelation).
So much of the film is simply candid conversation, travelogue-style montages of gorgeous South African scenery, and low key hijinks such as climbing over a border fence, learning drag terminology, and not pissing off potentially homophobic patrons in rural bars.
By the time mom does enter the picture, Runs in the Family is ready for a burst of new energy and Lawrenson offers it in spades. Monica vivacious, sexy and completely enthralling, which makes it easy to understand why Varun fell for her in the first place.
All of this is so pleasant and enjoyable that by the time the third act arrives, set at Her Vagesty The Queen (Earl Gregory)’s regional drag competition, one hopes that the film will resist the impulse to inject drama or conflict into the proceedings.
Alas, this not only occurs, but Gabriel’s screenplay seemingly doubles down on it. A sudden heel turn uproots the film’s easy vibes and shifts the film from road trip to a dark crime film, full of double crosses and secrets. It’s not completely out of the blue considering some of Varun and Monica’s dialogue, but the sudden shift in tone is abrupt and too desperate to up the dramatic stakes.
The result is a climax that ultimately hurts the film and makes the closing scene’s attempt to return to the light hearted, easy-going vibe of the first two-thirds impossible. While the last act doesn’t undo the good work of the film, or reduce the emotional impact of the father/son relationship, or undermine these two incredibly strong and charismatic lead performances, it does ultimately leave a sour final impression, which truly is a shame considering how strong the rest of the film is. 3.5/5
Runs in the Family is doing the festival circuit, including Inside/Out
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