Thanks to Orange The New Black’s Laverne Cox, Olympian Caitlyn Jenner and filmmaking duo Lana and Lilly Wachowski (The Matrix, Sense8), trans representation has taken great strides in the past couple of years. The conversation on how trans people should be represented on screen has evolved, with more moviegoers calling for trans characters being portrayed by trans actors, instead of such roles being an opportunity for cisgender performers to show range. (See: Boys Don’t Cry, Transparent, Dallas Buyers Club, and The Danish Girl). These advances mean great news for the LGBTQA community, but bad timing for the long-delayed release of writer/director Gaby Dellal’s 3 Generations.
The film—formerly titled About Ray—was shot in the winter of 2014, and stars Elle Fanning (a cisgender woman) as Ray, a trans teen boy begging his mother (Naomi Watts) to allow him to begin transitioning through hormone therapy. Ahead of its release, 3 Generations sparked backlash over Fanning’s casting and a trailer where Ray was misgendered by his grandmother (Susan Sarandon). Dellal made matters worse by misgendering Ray in a now infamous interview. This plus lukewarm reviews out of the Toronto Film Festival pushed its release from the fall of 2015 to now, where Dellal still defends 3 Generations’s controversial casting. And I mention all this mostly because you can feel the tension of this backlash throughout this earnest but woefully messy family drama.
The title shift from About Ray to 3 Generations is a wise and telling one. Ray is at the film’s center, but is not its protagonist. We follow him as he weaves through bustling NYC streets on a skateboard, ducks into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in search of a non-gendered bathroom, and dodges bullies who violently demand to see his genitalia, yet Ray is not the character who needs to change over the course of the film. He knows who he is. It’s everyone else who must catch up to him.
The title 3 Generations shifts audience expectation to a shared narrative of the family as a whole dealing with Ray’s transition. His supportive mother Maggie (Watts) accompanies Ray to therapy, and accepts his new name, preferred pronouns, and choice of boys clothing. But she struggles with signing the paperwork that would allow him to begin medically transitioning. For much of the movie, Maggie hides her reluctance behind the pesky red tape that Ray’s estranged father (Tate Donovan) must also sign off, despite having been out of his life for most of it. Maggie’s journey to fully accept her son becomes the film’s focus as she defends him against his confounded father and his mouthy grandmother.
Sarandon is perfectly cast as the second-wave feminist who just doesn’t get it. Swanning around in Annie Hall-like menswear and bickering with her long-time girlfriend Honey, grandma Dodo demands to know why Ray “can’t just be a lesbian?” She also blithely compares gender reassignment surgery to the female genital mutilation. Yeah. It’s pretty cringe-worthy if you’re up on trans rights. However, this is not a movie for the woke, but the waking.
Dodo fires off these insults not realizing they are insulting, because she doesn’t comprehend Ray’s struggle or truth. She—like too many feminists her age (and younger)—see trans men as some sort of betrayal of female empowerment. And his father sees Ray’s trans identity as a sign that he and Maggie failed as parents. Both love Ray, but neither understands him. Rather than having a teen to defend his existence to his loved ones, Maggie serves as the mouthpiece in defense of trans people, spouting out proclamations about how Ray is only looking to be “authentic” to himself. For his part, Ray divulges his inner-most thoughts in splattered clips of a video diary, where he wishes to be his crush’s boyfriend and crows how his chest workouts are deflating his bust. But this becomes emotional exposition wedged into a second-act more about his mom’s wild past than his hopes for the future.
Somewhere amid this morass of backstory, raw emotion, and tattered nerves, there’s the roots of a compelling and charming family drama. But watching 3 Generations, you can feel the strain of “getting it right” etched into every tense confrontation, thanks to an editing trick most often seen in reality TV and comedy. When you watch a movie or TV show and hear a standout line of dialogue—like a really cutting comment, a deeply insightful observation, or a wild one-liner—but you’re not shown the person speaking it, that’s typically a trick of editing or ADR (additional dialogue recording). Sometimes recorded audio is stitched together, or placed elsewhere to beef up a confrontation. Sometimes talent will come back to record new dialogue to punch up jokes, or lay in crucial exposition lines in moments where the camera isn’t on their character. 3 Generations is so full of these moments that you could make a drinking game of it, but only if you had a death wish. It speaks to a heavy hand rewriting in post.
Strangely, for all this post-production fiddling, the word “transgender” is never spoken. It’s spotted once on the cover of a self-help book Maggie reads. Yet for the entirety of the film, Ray is spoken of only in terms of being a boy or girl. Which is effective in a scene where he describes to his very young half-siblings how he is “sort of” their brother. (“I was born in a girl’s body.”) But works less well when goddamn grown-ups are discussing his future, yet seemed spooked to call Ray what he is: trans and proud. It feels as if the movie itself doesn’t want to scare off an audience with a word they don’t fully understand.
Ultimately, I’m conflicted about 3 Generations. Dellal awed me in 2005 with her heartbreaking yet victorious family drama On A Clear Day. But here, she gets tangled in a snarl of bickering and backstory, and mucks up her message movie with a shockingly sloppy edit. My guess is that she and her producers made a desperate bid to carve the best they could out of an in-the-can movie with some serious optics issues. But this aggressive reshaping can be felt throughout with an edit that’s left much of the crucial exchanges jagged and jarring.
In the end, 3 Generations is well-intended and heart-warming, but a mess, and problematic besides. Still, this movie offers a safe space for sympathetic but perplexed potential allies (like Dodo/Sarandon) to see their questions addressed without them having to accidentally insult any actual trans people. So that’s something. Still, if you’re looking for a trans coming-of-age story staring trans performers, try Boy Meets Girl with Michelle Hendley or Gun Hill Road with Harmony Santana, the first openly trans performer to be nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.