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3 Generations

May 12, 2017
3 Generations

At some point since its initial festival screenings, About Ray changed its title to 3 Generations. Which is probably for the best, since “Ray” is pretty much the last thing it’s about. For a movie trying to ride the crest of public — well, bourgeois liberal — awareness of trans stories, it’s all but uninterested in the actual experience of the trans character at its center.

That character being Ray (Elle Fanning), whose mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), struggles to refer to with male pronouns. But at least she tries more than her own mother, Dolly (Susan Sarandon), who doesn’t see why Ray can’t just stay “Ramona” and be a lesbian. If this were a 101-level story there might at least be some basic recap of gender theory to cover the difference between a lesbian — a cis woman who likes women — and a trans man who likes women.

Instead, it exists at the level of awareness achievable from a reflexive hatred of regressive Republican policies. Like, did you hear that trans youth have been forbidden from public bathrooms in their own schools? It’s an outrage! You should feel outraged and sad for Ray, who has to go to a nearby restaurant. Except that New York, where the movie is set, has a policy in place explicitly allowing students to use the bathroom that aligns with their own gender identity. But writer/director Gaby Dellal isn’t about to let facts like that get in the way of her sense of indignation. She clearly doesn’t need to do any research about the problems a trans boy like Ray would actually face.

And like I said, it’s not really about him anyway, as is clear from her comments about Ray being “a girl, presenting in an ineffectual way as a boy”, as if the validity of someone’s gender identity depends on how convincing their appearance is. The movie is far more concerned with Maggie’s conundrum: the permission forms she needs to sign also need the signature of the man listed as Ray’s father on the birth certificate (Tate Donovan), and Maggie is conflicted about seeing him again. And when she does track him down, he’s not sure if he’s on-board. All of this against the ticking clock of Ray wanting to get on testosterone therapy at least six months before transferring to a new school in the fall.

None of this holds together. First of all, if the father isn’t even paying child support anymore — she says as much when she has to track him down — why does his signature matter so much? Surely it’s just a legal formality to sever whatever claim he might have on paper. But that’s where the ticking clock comes in, which itself is artificial. The forms are not some secret that was sprung on them at the last minute, and realistically there was plenty of time to get all these ducks in a row, except that Dellal needs to inject drama and pressure on Maggie, her real protagonist.

Or maybe they just haven’t paid attention to the paperwork until this point? I don’t buy it. Sixteen-year-olds are practically paralegals when it comes to the ins and outs of what exactly is required to obtain a driver’s license. For something like gender dysphoria therapy, Ray certainly knows these forms backwards and forwards, inside and out. There are whole online communities and support groups; he must be in communication with them, or who is he making his transition progress videos — the only possibly interesting parts of the movie — for? He’s seen the line asking for his father’s signature, and yet has done nothing to make sure it won’t present a problem.

But Dellal isn’t interested in engaging with the sort of community young trans people might craft for themselves. Tumblr itself might be a bit hazy for a woman in her 50s, and it distracts from what she’s really interested in: the tribulations of their middle-aged mothers. Even there, the characterization is awkward; Maggie is a woman who is willing to have serious conversations about gender identity with her teenager, and yet is afraid to tell him about the legal complications with his father.

Which brings us back to Dellal’s true perspective: Dolly, played by Sarandon as a well-off, well-meaning, but clueless and outspoken bumbler who lets her ideals run roughshod over the lived experiences of people around her. She’s the one who changes her mind to earn the Woke Merit Badge, which is more important to Dellal than an accurate portrayal of a trans experience. Like Dolly, the script is mired in second-wave feminism as it is dragged, kicking and screaming, into the modern gender landscape. It even manages to get in a healthy dose of hetero-slut-shaming along the way: “don’t be loose with men, girls, or your own children will pay the price!”

And all of this misguided exploitation of trans experiences comes with one of the sloppiest executions I’ve seen outside of a student film. The acting is fine; Fanning does as well as any actress might, though I’m certain that a good casting director could have found an aspiring trans actor just beginning his transition. But the editing is a giant mess, patched over with truly awful ADR work to add or alter lines. To some extent this is the result of a hasty re-cutting a year ago, but there’s still no excuse for letting it get released in this form.

But the show must go on, as a monument to Dellal’s self-congratulation. If she didn’t push this out into the world, how else would everyone know how down with the trans struggle she is? Never mind the actual trans people saying there are huge problems with it; what would they know about their own lives that Dellal can’t explain to them better? That’s what they’re really here for: a target for well-off ladies to show just how open-minded and progressive and accepting they can be.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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