By Joanna Cosgrove
Due for release originally in September 2015, About Ray was awaited by many in Hollywood and in the general population. The story of a transgender teenage boy, seeking to begin hormone replacement therapy is a simple but progressive one – as we all know, transgender people aren’t always highlighted in a positive way in the media. The closest we’ve had before was The Danish Girl, which was a great movie but a rare one in its subject matter.
However, just after its premiere in 2015, there was great backlash from the trans community; this was mainly directed at the casting of Elle Fanning as the title character Ray. Many spoke out against About Ray (also alternatively titled Three Generations) due to the casting of a cisgender female actor as a transgender male character. But I’ll speak more on this matter later. Due to the backlash, the general release was pulled and only recently (13th February 2017) was it announced the movie was to be released in May this year with the title Three Generations.
How did I watch this film if it wasn’t released publicly? My best friend, transgender himself, found it and we viewed it recently, because it had been a mystery to us all since 2015. This review will be a share of my opinion, as well as the opinions of my friends. So let’s have a look into this new-normal story.
The story focuses on mainly three characters: teenager Ray (Fanning), his mother Maggie (Naomi Watts), and his lesbian grandmother Dolly (Susan Sarandon). Also featured in the movie is Ray’s father Craig (Tate Donovan), and Craig’s brother Matthew (Sam Trammell).
The movie’s main plot is Ray, aged sixteen, trying to get his mother and father sign paperwork to allow him to begin his medical transition. In all honesty, it has a realistic view of families with a transgender child – one of my best friends, a transgender male, is still having a tough time getting his parents to understand his gender, and he told me he felt like he was watching scenes from his own home life. That is a great viewpoint to display, because it holds a sense of realism for the viewer; even someone who isn’t going through any similar experiences.
I will also give kudos to the people working on this movie by having Maggie be a respectful character towards her son: she faces her own doubts on signing the paperwork, and has fears on what could happen to Ray in the future, but she doesn’t try and get him to change his mind or go back to being her daughter, because he isn’t her daughter. He’s her son. It breaks the negative stereotype for trans characters in the media, who usually face hardships and isolation and is treated harshly for being “different” in their society. It gives hope. And it shows when Maggie is constantly correcting people. No one more than her own mother Dolly, who still refers to Ray as “she” and “her”, and even uses the old excuse of “maybe she’s just a lesbian” (spoken by a lesbian, funnily enough). She changes every “she” to “he”, and combats the lesbian comments: “he’s not a lesbian, he’s a boy”. A separation of sexuality and gender is so important in the LGBTQ community; and when it’s clearly stated by someone on a screen, there’s no ignoring it. It sends out a good message to non-LGBTQ viewers, and that’s all that these people aim for.
This movie has great leaps forward, but there are still stereotypes played towards; but then again, this was to be expected.
Ray is characterised as what the typical transgender teenager is usually seen as: quiet, bullied, artistic (he is shown composing music and filming short movies on his phone to document his transition), and with an abnormal family life. Ray’s parents are separated, and he doesn’t have regular contact with his father Craig. Furthermore, Craig is the most hesitant about Ray’s transition; he is the character who uses his birth name most frequently throughout the movie. There is a scene where they are sat together to discuss his signing the paperwork, where he asks Ray if his absence from his life is the reason for his being trans. But points scored for Ray’s constant correction.
There are twists, and turns, and the story is one that opens your eyes. However, it lacks elements that could have derailed it from the “normal” view of trans individuals, and therefore relatable to more transgender individuals worldwide.
It’s a step forwards, but more steps are still needed. The movie has a happy, albeit abrupt end, and it represents the overall look of the movie: it had the potential to finish happily, but it felt unfinished. It felt as if there were missing pieces that could have completed the story of Ray and his still-learning family.
To finish, let me give my best friend’s view on the casting of Elle Fanning as Ray: Elle was cast because, despite the full existence of talented transgender actors, the character of Ray had not transitioned in any way past appearance (masculine clothing and short hair). Many transgender actors have transitioned physically and medically, and therefore would not be suitable for a pre-everything trans teen; the forcing a trans actor to de-transition enough for the role would be a strain on their mental health and cause them dysphoria. The casting of Elle Fanning was appropriate, but only for a role such as a pre-everything teenager, who still has breasts and a high-pitched voice. If the character of Ray had begun testosterone, and changes in his body were taking place, it would then be best to cast a transgender male actor.
Keep everything in mind if you view Three Generations in cinema from its May release. It’s progressive – but it could still be improved.