It’s a challenge to take on a subject that affects such a miniscule part of the population (up to 0.014% of people assigned male at birth and 0.003% of people assigned female at birth are diagnosed with this condition). Does 3 Generations do justice to the topic of gender dysphoria? Yes, but with caveats.
Director and co-writer Gaby Dellal’s film is nuanced and sensitive in bringing the emotionally complex subject to an audience who may not fully understand the suffering and pain of this condition. But more is needed. Instead of the full range of emotions the film is challenged to expose, it only obliquely addresses what Elle Fanning’s 16-year old Ray must endure on a daily basis.
Born Ramona, the transgender teen knew from a young age that he was a boy trapped in a girl’s body. Eager to make the transition via muscle-building workouts and hormone therapy, Ray, as he insists he be called, needs the signatures of both parents—single mom, Maggie (Naomi Watts) and now divorced father Craig (Tate Donovan). Both remain a bit unsure about Ray’s therapy and impending irreversible transition.
Muddying the waters with bouts of comic relief are Maggie’s mother, Dolly (Susan Sarandon) and her longtime partner Frances (Linda Emond). As a lesbian, you’d expect Dolly to be more involved and supportive of Ray, offering unique insights into the crosses he has to bear in asserting his physically masked identity. But Dolly and Frances have been principally relegated to the clichés of bickering, bantering seniors chastising Maggie for smoking and not making up her mind about things seemingly unimportant.
Instead of focusing on Ray, 3 Generations gets bogged down by a paper chase—the all-important consent form needed to begin Ray’s hormone therapy. After Maggie decides to finally sign the form, the film segues into a father chase. Here, we enter the life of Ray’s long-absent father who now has a new wife and three children of his own. The Craig-Maggie storyline narrowly takes on a life of its own, but the film thankfully leaves this orbit and perigees back to Ray’s plight.
There’s no doubt that Fanning’s stellar performance carries this film. We’re magnetically drawn to the dipoles of Ray’s tortured existence. The crushing humiliation suffered at the hands of a bully who physically assaults him. The stomach wrenching pain of hearing the girl he has a crush on covertly deny his sexuality. The frustration of muscle-building weight training with little to show for it.
Ray’s inner struggles are opaquely revealed through his camera phone movies and his relentless skateboarding, shown at ground level, hard surfaces as metaphors for his unforgiving trek to self-identity.
Ray’s teen angst is amplified by a secret revealed toward the end of the film, which ends in a shuddering meltdown scream that punctuates many layers of pain. Ray is a body boxed in by the ignorance and indecision of those he loves and needs to love. Ray needs his mother, but Maggie is simply too weighted down with her own insecurities, neuroses and poor life choices, not the least of which is her affair with her ex’s brother Matthew (Sam Trammell).
More revelatory filmmaking and less comic shtick would have made 3 Generations a truly powerful work. 3 Generations will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on June 13.