CINEMA: Not-So-Much About Ray

By on May 9, 2017

3 Generations loses one distinct voice by listening to several others.

Elle Fanning, Naomi Watts and Susan Sarandon in 3 Generations.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – More than 18 months ago, when co-writer/director Gaby Dellal’s 3 Generations premiered at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, it wasn’t 3 Generations. It was About Ray, a drama centered on a transgender teenager’s transition from female to male. That long gestation from festival debut to U.S. theatrical release, accompanied by a title change, suggests the whiff of failure—and indeed, the movie formerly known as About Ray did not earn critical hosannas in Toronto.

So how did a movie with Naomi Watts, Elle Fanning and Susan Sarandon, dealing with a particularly of-the-moment subject, become such a castoff that its distributor avoided any reference to that long-ago premiere?

That’s not an easy question, nor does 3 Generations entirely deserve its status as prestige-pic-turned-pariah. The story begins with 16-year-old Ray (Fanning) already well into his identity transformation from Ramona as he lives with his single mother, Maggie (Watts), his grandmother, Dodo (Susan Sarandon), and Dodo’s life partner, Frances (Linda Emond). The next step is beginning hormone therapy, for which the minor Ray requires parental consent. That means not just Maggie’s consent, but that of Ray’s long-absent father, Craig (Tate Donovan)—though Maggie is struggling with the decision.

At the heart of the narrative is a fairly compelling idea, anchored in this unconventional family structure. Dodo may have raised Maggie with another woman, and Maggie may have raised Ray never having married Craig, but this group of New York intellectuals still doesn’t know how to process Ray’s gender identity. Dodo is openly opposed, leading Ray to quip, “For a lesbian, you’re pretty judgmental.” That dynamic gives 3 Generations a kick that might not have been there in a story where Ray’s family was made up of angry conservatives or supportive liberals. What do you do when the open-mindedness you always thought you had collides with the reality of your own child’s life?

There’s potent material in that idea, and Watts turns in a performance that’s engrossingly uneasy. She gets some great emotional moments, whether it’s wistfully looking through photos of Ray at a time when it all seemed easier (at least for Maggie), or watching Ray bounce on a bed in a way that reminds Maggie of the carefree child he used to be; there are equally great bits as Maggie sees Craig now in the kind of blissfully “normal” nuclear family she never experienced. Few movies have wrestled honestly with the way even well-intentioned loved ones can feel grief over a gender transition.

It would have been a risky move to make 3 Generations entirely about the way the family copes with Ray’s transition, but it would have been a better choice than what Dellal and co-writer Nikole Beckwith offer. They do spend a fair amount of time on the everyday challenges of Ray’s life—missing part of school to run across the street to a coffee shop’s gender-neutral bathroom, binding his breasts with ace bandages, facing down bullying—in a way that’s honest without feeling melodramatic. But as talented as Fanning is, the low-key approach to Ray’s own experience makes that part of the story feel like an afterthought, as though the filmmakers knew they were obliged to give us Ray’s point of view even if Maggie’s made for the more unique and thoughtful story.

The story gets more convoluted as 3 Generations gives the history of Maggie’s split with Craig, and begins to seem resolute about delivering the most unusual blended family photo possible. Yet in their determination to give everyone a voice, Dellal and Beckwith never allow any one voice distinction. As it turns out, 3 Generations seems like the title the movie should have had all along, and part of why it felt unsatisfying to audiences 18 months ago. It was never entirely about Ray, and maybe it still ended up being too much about Ray. PJH

3 GENERATIONS
★★.5
Naomi Watts
Elle Fanning
Susan Sarandon
Rated PG-13

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