Can you believe the fake news that has people convinced that drag queens are grooming children? Well, it turns out that they’re really just changing minds for folks of all ages and entertaining them to boot. Runs in the Family provides a novel, down-to-earth story that proves how drag really is fun for the whole family. The film is a family affair, too, with the father-son duo of Ian Gabriel and Gabe Gabriel tag-teaming it as director and writer/star, respectively. This South African comedy takes the familiar trope of a road movie and gives it an appropriately intimate spin as a father and his transgender son take a fateful drive together and ultimately embark on a lively drag race. While the low-budget flick at times resembles drag on a dime, it’s bound to win audiences over with its heart and humour. It’s Transamerica through a contemporary lens that affords transgender artists authority over their own stories.
Verun (Ace Bhatti, Freddie Mercury’s dad in Bohemian Rhapsody) and his son River (Gabriel, in his first professional role since coming out as trans in 2018) embark on a journey to collect River’s estranged mother, Monica (Diaan Lawrenson), from a rehab clinic many miles away. River resists the trip, partly due to the dreadful inevitability of meeting his mother by coming out to her. But he’s also worried that he’s risking his true self by schlepping miles to bail out someone who abandoned him. River, moreover, has his eyes on the prize of an impending drag competition with his bestie Ollie (Cleo Wesley). The loot is 50,000 rand, which will help River finally get his top surgery. But he concedes to be the bigger person and accompanies his dad for the ride. Before getting into drag, both men undergo a transformation that money can’t buy.
And Mommy Makes Three
The trip provides an opportunity for some inevitable heart to heart. Bhatti and Gabriel have an easygoing rapport that sells the family dynamic. (One could easily see Runs in the Family and assume the stars are the film’s father-son duo.) As the film builds this authentic relationship, it allows River to educate Verun about his job, lifestyle, and dreams. He gives his dad the ins-and-outs of drag lingo—Verun’s eyes really pop when River tells him how to tuck. Verun, in turn, finally shares why he and Monica split. However, Mommy dearest unsurprisingly shatters the comfort, rapport, and mutually respectful atmosphere they build along the way.
Monica’s appearance underscores what a positive influence Verun has been on his son’s life. Loud, vulgar, and totally un-PC, Monica constantly misgenders River upon meeting her son. Lawrenson’s lively, borderline-sinister turn as Monica gives the sense that this mother is bad to the bone. Her pronoun usage seems more intentional than ignorant. Where Verun works to boost River’s confidence, Monica appears eager to provoke discomfort.
The difference in the parents’ outlooks, moreover, lets Runs in the Family explore relevant themes about the great divide that still exists for transgender rights. The set-up between one parent who is open and supportive, and the other who is happily ignorant and insensitive, allows Gabriel’s script to have conversations about love and (self)acceptance as River faces the familiar task of educating and encountering deaf ears.
We’re Here Redux
However, drag fans might notice how sharply Runs in the Family echoes the HBO reality series We’re Here. The show sees RuPaul’s Drag Race stars Shangela, Eureka, and Bob the Drag Queen visit small, often conservative towns in the USA. Each episode lets the queens play drag mother to a family member, usually a parent, of a young person who identifies as LGBTQ+. As they make them over, teach them how to walk a runway, and how tell them how to tuck, the queens use drag for teachable moments about inclusion, representation, and love. Runs in the Family hits every beat of an episode of We’re Here.
That’s not a bad thing, though. Too many films focus on the parents’ perspectives when dealing with coming out stories. But Runs in the Family flips the script on familiar trans narratives. River ultimately doesn’t seek or want Monica’s acceptance. Where even well-intentioned films, fall into traps of making characters repeat their worth to straight or cis-gender family members, Runs in the Family resolutely emphasizes River’s perspective. Even while giving Bhatti considerable dramatic weight, Verun lets River arrive at his own destination.
It’s also refreshing that much of the story centres upon queer joy. As the film culminates with the climatic drag competition, it worries little about how much Verun enjoys it. (He clearly does and ensures that audiences will have as much fun.) Instead, the film lets Gabriel own the moment as River finds the stage truly empowering. His performance celebrates his journey through gender identity and the fluidity of experience. The Gabriels smartly invite a chorus of South Africa’s finest drag queens to round out the show. Beyond giving the competition a little more glitter and glamour, the queens ground Gabriel’s performance in something else: shared experience. This is a story unabashedly told by people who lived it, camp and all.