"Meet The Patels" is the unlikeliest of success stories. It's a documentary that began as a home movie and ended up a warm and funny feature. It turned one man's culturally specific journey into a lively and engaging universal story made with an unmistakable sense of fun.
But "Meet The Patels" is more than just a hoot. Its candor and empathy allow it to make keen points about love, marriage, family and the unexpected complications that American freedoms can bring to immigrant lives.
Front and center in this endeavor is Ravi Patel, whose story this is and who co-directed the film with his sister Geeta (who is also the cinematographer) and costars in it with his parents Champa and Vasant. "Meet The Patels" is a family affair from beginning to end.
Before we meet the Patels in person, the film begins with a cartoon version of Ravi (animated by Jim Richardson) talking to the camera and bringing us up to date on the back story of his life.
A first-generation Indian American, Ravi reveals that just before filming began he broke up with his first serious girlfriend, the red-haired, non-Indian Audrey.
Not only that, Ravi's immigrant parents, fixated on his marrying an Indian, were never told of Audrey's existence, so "in Mom and Dad's eyes, I've never had a girlfriend." To be approaching 30 without ever having had marriage prospects is a family crisis of the first water. As father Vasant tells him, "Not getting married is the biggest loser you can be."
In broad outline, of course, this story is not an unfamiliar one, but two things make it special, starting with Ravi's live-wire personality.
A working actor and comedian who has an antic presence and a fine deadpan face, Ravi's sharp and funny voiceover (heard both over the footage his sister shot and speaking to the audience in the animation) is a high-energy component that unifies the film.
Ravi's appealing comic charisma sets "Meet The Patels' " tone, leading to such elements as bright yellow arrows that point out amusing things on screen and lots of brief interviews with both Ravi's friends and his parents' friends about Adventures in Matchmaking, Indian Style.
The second factor that makes "Meet the Patels" so attractive is the detailed specificity of both Ravi's immediate family and the broader Indian cultural context everyone is rooted in.
Both Ravi's father Vasant, a self-made success whose favorite phrase is, "Look at me now," and his acerbic mother Champa, of all things a celebrated matchmaker in her home village, are vivid characters.
The happy veterans of a 35-year arranged marriage that was agreed to after a single 10-minute meeting ("Some people date and get married; we did it the opposite" his father explains), they are understandably high on that process and want Ravi to give it a try.
Adding to the complications is the unavoidable fact that Ravi is a Patel, which makes him "unconditionally part of the biggest family in the world." Ravi's parents expect him to marry another member of the Patel clan, which is based in a 50-square-mile radius in India's Gujurat province but now boasts Patels all over the world.
"Meet The Patels" begins with sequences that took place during a family visit to India, a visual record whose shaky cinematography (sister Geeta was just learning to use the camera) becomes one of the film's unexpectedly amusing aspects.
"You know that girl in 'Eat, Pray, Love?'" Ravi asks. "She goes through a breakup, goes on the existential journey to India to get over depression, finds what she really wanted in life. I was that girl. Except my family was with me the entire time."
Disheartened by his breakup with Audrey and genuinely attracted to the family nature of Indian culture, Ravi decides to embark on a grand experiment.
Pushing aside thoughts that "it's pathetic to have your mom and dad set you up," he agrees to wholeheartedly participate in the modern version of arranged marriage — which turns out to have several permutations, each more unusual than the last.
First comes immersion in a system called "Bio-dating," which involves the families of eligible parties exchanging detailed resumes before phone calls are made and dates (often filmed by Geeta) are arranged. Then there are Indian matrimonial websites, trips to India during the courtship-heavy wedding season, even participation in a Patel Matrimonial Convention where speed dating between eager-to-wed Patels is the order of the day.
Ravi's combination of sincere participation and amused disbelief at what he's gotten himself into gives "Meet the Patels" its winning personality. That and the film's unexpected moments of truth and clarity.
"What can I say, America is different," mother Champa says at a particularly low point as she tries to put into words the sadness she feels about a son who doesn't feel bound to follow the traditional ways. It's a sentiment about the confusions and expectations of cultural transitions that almost anyone can identify with, especially today.
'Meet the Patels'
MPAA rating: PG, for thematic elements, brief suggestive images and incidental smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Landmark, West Los Angeles