‘Meet the Patels’
Geeta Patel and Ravi Patel
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG
3 (out of 5) Globes

The documentary “Meet the Patels” starts by asking you to lower your expectations. The camerawork, subject Ravi Patel tells us, tends towards the shaky-cam and out-of-focus aesthetics of an old home movie. The microphone will sometimes be in the frame. Moreover, it’s emphatically a “fun” documentary — a zippy, bright-spirited comedy about wacky parents, their old, outmoded but still respected and even beloved traditions and a fun protagonist looking for love, all told in the form of a romantic comedy with intended similarities to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” 

Ravi — who we’ll call by first name rather than last since “Patel” being the Indian equivalent of America’s “Smith” is one of the doc’s topics — is, like many rom-coms heroes, just of a relationship, albeit one he himself ended. His girlfriend was white and American, whereas he is second generation Indian-American. As such, his parents, who met through an arranged marriage, hold onto old tropes and regularly harangue him for never settling down, ideally with someone within their ethnicity. And so Ravi tries, for doc’s sake, their way: He offers himself as guinea pig to a paper version of OK Cupid via Biodata sheets, to attempted arranged marriages, to actual marriage conferences, and ones populated only by people named “Patel” — anything that smacks of old school and is today mostly used by people guilt-tripped by their old world parents.

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Throughout Ravi keeps the pace lively and the form light. (Ravi is also an actor, soon to be seen on the forthcoming Aziz Ansari Netflix show “Master of None.” “Patels” in part functions like a feature-length audition reel.) He refers to, without sarcasm, the movie of “Eat. Pray. Love.”, wherein a white American uses the globe as her own playground and personal healing center. He throws in clips from “Dirty Dancing” and “Jerry Maguire.” The soundtrack is filled with easy, on-the-nose pop hits, like “You Sexy Thing.” 

This implies easy edutainment, but it’s deeper than it often lets on or, perhaps, itself knows. Ravi, who directed with his sister Geeta (who also served as the shambling cinematographer), are capturing their bi-national upbringing, that is at once firmly Indian and impossibly American. As such he’s capturing, either with great ease or simply by accident, how national identity has become, at this point in history, fluid — how we try to transcend ethnicity but can’t help define ourselves by it anyway, at times willingly and happily.

It’s a smarter film than perhaps it wants you to think, as if it knows that if it was more assertive about being a film essay then less people would want to watch it. “Meet the Patels” sometimes so underestimates its audience, and sometimes itself, that it can come off as banal. Ravi’s romantic problems threaten to take up more real estate as it gets into the requisite third act tonal shift to more serious territory, complete with a shocking revelation Ravi should have told his parents far earlier. At times it’s rich and insightful, at other times trite and forgettable — just like a standard rom-com. 

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge