Never has the proverb “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” been more applicable to a film than 3 Generations, previously titled About Ray when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. After receiving lukewarm reviews upon its festival release, it was shelved for over a year to be re-tooled and re-edited to address some of the issues audiences had with it, eventually being released to the public in 2017. Unfortunately, no amount of tinkering could prevent 3 Generations from being inert as a drama and tin-eared in its approach to its themes.
Ray (Elle Fanning) is a teenaged transgender boy who desperately wants to begin hormone therapy treatment, a decision which has caused a lot of friction between him and his mom, Maggie (Naomi Watts) and grandmother, Dolly (Susan Sarandon). Ray’s father, Craig (Tate Donovan) has been out of the picture for over a decade, but because Ray is a minor, he requires a signature from both parents before he can proceed with gender reassignment. This goes about as well as one would expect in a family drama that is so besotted with––and ultimately encumbered by––the clichés of the genre.
Regrettably, while the original title of the movie, About Ray, suggests that the drama would revolve around Ray and the frustrations that come from being both transgender and a teenager, the focus falls instead on Maggie’s troubled family life. And that's unfortunate; unfortunate not only because Naomi Watts is burdened with leaden expeditionary dialogue, becoming a mouthpiece for Ray, but also because by pushing Ray to the side, it makes his arguments with Maggie seem antagonistic rather than balanced. In a drama such as this, histrionic shouting matches are to be expected, but by making Maggie the lead, Ray almost comes across as one of the film’s enemies at times, an unintentional drawback that I expect director and co-writer Gaby Dellal didn’t intend.
It is a relief then that Elle Fanning can mine as much naturalistic gravitas from Ray as she can, given how underwritten Ray is in his own story. Most of Ray’s frustrations are articulated through vignettes that he films and edits on a handheld camera; much like the vlogs that are often uploaded to Youtube from teenagers in similar positions. Fanning does a lot with very little, giving Ray pathos only hinted at in the script. Fanning’s casting caused some controversy due to her playing a transgender boy, but this is mostly sidestepped by not depicting the transition. Often, when cis-gendered actors play transgendered characters, they have a habit to fetishize them, giving it the appearance of someone playing dress-up. For example, Fanning does not try to give Ray a false ‘manliness’ in the same way Eddie Redmayne or Jared Leto seem to be performing in a ‘ladylike’ manner in The Danish Girl and The Dallas Buyer’s Club respectively.
Admittedly, not being transgendered myself or knowing anyone personally who is, I may be showing my ignorance in this respect on how accurate Fanning’s portrayal is, but it certainly appeared from my vantage to be sensitively handled. I wish the same were true for the issues the film raises, as 3 Generations seems content to pay lip service to concerns that the transgendered community may be familiar with without ever exploring their depths.
One issue that is raised and then only briefly hinted at afterward is Ray’s discomfort with living in a woman’s body. We see him lifting a dumbbell briefly in one scene; he later he flexes his bicep in the mirror, but otherwise, this is dropped. Given how he is physically smaller than most cisgendered boys, this is an area that is worthy of exploration, given how those who do wish to transition must live in a body that contradicts the way they see their own. It is a shame then that its inclusion seems like an afterthought. It’s these kinds of insecurities that those in the transgendered community frequently encounter, and by briefly depicting Ray’s body issues, the film had a chance to articulate this in greater detail. This is a further problem when the screenplay sidelines Ray in favour of Maggie; these seemingly small moments which explore larger, looming anxieties are rendered nearly non-existent.
Certain intrafamilial frictions and misunderstandings rear their ugly heads, but they're rarely concluded in any way that would be satisfactory for a movie that wishes to be taken seriously as a drama.
Take, for example, Dolly’s refusal to accept Ray’s desire to transition. Dolly’s girlfriend, Frances (Linda Emond) works for a charity that raises awareness for victims of female genital mutilation in third world nations. As far as Dolly is concerned, there is little difference between this and what Ray wishes to do, much to everyone else’s chagrin. Frustrations at school are briefly brought up, with Ray facing violence from class bullies who employ transphobic slurs, but this development is dropped almost as soon as it’s raised. These issues, as they stand, could very well be interesting, but the lackluster script does not permit them enough time to strike a chord, particularly as the rest of the film struggles to find room in the soap opera-like family drama between Maggie and Craig.
Perhaps the greatest example of an issue Ray faces, but that the script almost immediately drops, comes just after Ray is bullied by his classmates. He comes to school the next day with a black eye, which raises the attention of Lola (Elle Winter), to whom Ray is attracted. She mentions to Ray, in an attempt to cheer him up, how cowardly it was for the bullies to act violently towards a woman. He is hurt by the remark: despite Lola’s best intentions, she has misgendered him, unwittingly committing an act of microaggression. It’s this kind of common remark that the transgender community frequently battles, perhaps even more so than violence, which is only briefly hinted at in this scene and then never again.
Had 3 Generations had the courage to focus on Ray’s journey, instead of Maggie’s, we may have seen more of these subtle ways that those in the transgender community are victimised. Perhaps we would have seen one of Ray’s friends say “she” or “her” instead of “he” or “him." Perhaps we would have seen others confuse Ray for a girl, if not insist on misgendering him outright. When arguing with Craig, Maggie suggests that Ray may be suicidal, which the narrative fails to explore further than that argument. Did director Dellal just completely ignore the disturbingly high suicide rates among transgendered teens and adults? Short answer: Yes.
I don’t believe that Gaby Dellal wanted to be disingenuous or misrepresent the transgender community, but the film leaves the viewer with the suspicion that Dellal and co-writer Nikole Beckwith do not have a particularly intimate understanding of issues that affect transgendered people. At times, it feels like this was a movie written after attending a shallow focus group on community grievances; a surface level understanding of the subject is all 3 Generations can muster. I suspect, that during such a focus group, they learned about transgender suicide rates, family grievances, being misgendered and bodily anxieties, and instead of focusing on these in depth, just briefly depicted them in an attempt to include everything. 3 Generations is just too pedestrian to work on its own merits as a family drama. It occurred to me about midway through the movie that there were so few moments of levity that all the characters felt like angst-riddled robots programmed to only speak in quirky-indie trailer quotes.
It has only been in the last decade or so that many filmmakers and screenwriters have felt comfortable discussing issues concerning the transgender community and the first few movies that have gained mainstream traction have inevitably been well-meaning but flawed. Hopefully, movies such as this will pave the way for filmmakers with a greater knowledge and authority to be able to make movies that are more honest.