Rūrangi: Rising Lights (2023) synopsis: “Rūrangi’s culture war intensifies between the transgender activists, farmers and local Māori – all while ancestors from the past reach out to the living with unfinished business”.
Why I took it off the list: By the time I finally got around to checking out the acclaimed Rūrangi (2020), I realized that a continuation series was literally just about to be released.
As a big fan of the first film/series, I was eager to see how the story of the people of Rūrangi carried on. So, let’s dig in!
Review of Rūrangi: Rising Lights (2023)
The first iteration of Rūrangi concluded on a cathartic, hopeful note. And, while it was clear the characters would still have significant external conflicts ahead, they seemed to have resolved most of their inner turmoil by the season’s end.
One of the most disappointing things about this sequel is that Rising Lights seems to have somewhat forgotten this. The narrative feels a bit repetitive, at least at first, making issues like Caz’s guilt and Jem’s uncertainty prominent problems to overcome once again.
Rūrangi also feels much more like a series this time around in its episodic rhythm and sometimes stretched-out subplots: it seems like it’d be much harder to condense into a feature for international release this time around.
But although Rūrangi: Rising Lights feels less focused, much of the expanded screen time it gives to previously underserved characters is more than welcome. Caz’s tough but empathetic childhood friend Anahera gets a much bigger spotlight, as she further embraces her Māori heritage, gets involved in (rather unorthodox) activism, and opens herself up to the possibility of finding love.
Some new elements also fit in well, particularly the increased focus on the older LGTBQ+ activists’ youth outreach work. Its exploration of the stigma around depression and suicide among gay men, and the attempts of the local Māori population to confront the glorification of the country’s colonial past, also feel like timely and worthy additions.
Some other changes don’t gel so well, though. Supernatural elements suggested at the beginning and end of the season don’t really go anywhere. There’s also a disappointing lack of closure to some of the character’s relationships.
Although, as the last episode leaves several important plot threads dangling, and ends on something of a cliffhanger, it’s clear that the creators are pretty confident they’re going back to Rūrangi in a third season.
The Cast Continues to Slay
Aside from the recycling of conflicts, the first couple of episodes of Rising Lights also feel a little jarring due to the recasting of a couple of key actors. I particularly missed Arlo Green at first. Although as the story goes on, Liam Coleman proves he’s more than capable of slipping into the shoes of nervy, introspective farmhand Jem. In the end he suceeds in making him just as loveable and the recasting soon slipped to the back of my mind.
Elz Carrad also continues to give a nuanced and convincing turn as Caz, although he feels a bit sidelined in the narrative this time around. Still, he does great work with what he’s given, has some lovely scenes with Coleman, and is undeniably powerful in conveying the anguish Caz feels over his ex-lover’s death.
In the end, though, it’s Awhina-Rose Ashby who gives the standout performance of the season. It’s great to see Anahera come into her own as a headstrong leader of the community and further put her no-nonsense sass to good use. At the same time, Ashby gets to explore more of Anahera’s sweet vulnerability, particularly in her budding romance with Caz’s activist friend Ellie (Ramon Te Wake, who also shines in an expanded role).
Final Score: 7/10
Rūrangi: Rising Lights (2023): Worth Watching?
Yes, while Rūrangi: Rising Lights initially feels like an unnecessary prolongation of its first outing, and certainly does rehash some of its story beats, it turns out to be a worthy endeavor.
Although it’s a little annoying that this second go-around doesn’t provide much closure at the end, the excellent performances and sensitive treatment of timely issues make this a return trip worth taking.
Rūrangi: Rising Lights (2023)
Written by Cole Meyers