Elle Fanning turns in an illuminating performance as a young transman in Gaby Dellal's poignant, humor-infused family drama "3 Generations."
Fanning plays Ray, formerly Ramona. As Ray explains it at one point, he's a boy born into the body of a girl. In order to address the disjunct between his female body and his male soul, Ray seeks hormone therapy as the first stage in gender transition. At age 16, he's already starting to develop feminine features such as breasts and wide hips, but a regimen of testosterone will help form his body along more masculine lines for the remainder of his adolescent years.
This presents something of time pressure, but Ray's mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts) -- who has to sign a parental consent before Ray can begin "T therapy" -- wants to "take it slow." Meantime, Ray's grandmother, Dolly (Susan Sarandon) and her female partner Frances (Linda Emond) present differing takes on Ray's dilemma. Dolly, a lifelong feminist, wonders why, if Ray is attracted to girls, he doesn't simply become a lesbian; Frances takes a more neutral stance, but tuts Dolly for never agreeing to wed her once same-sex marriage became legal. It's amidst this swirl of self-involvement that Ray struggles to mark out his own space.
The film deftly sketches out Ray's social situation at school, where he's mostly accepted, but where even the most well-meaning of his friends and acquaintances unwittingly misgender him. After a fight with a transphobic boy, Ray shows up with a black eye; a female classmate congratulates him for being "brave," but then adds a disapproving remark about guys who would hit a girl. Ray's smile at having earned a badge of masculinity instantly wilts. We understand his mixture of pride and frustration, his aspirations and terrors; using his cell phone and laptop, Ray is creating a documentary to express his thoughts and feelings about transitioning.
But the focus remains at home, where Dolly and Frances present a tag-team mixed bag of exasperating tropes, though delivered with heart and impeccable timing, while Maggie remains paralyzed with anxiety and grief. Maggie's perspective is that she's losing her daughter; worse, she's losing her sense as the parent in control of her child's situation, not only because Ray is becoming his own individual in ways Maggie hasn't anticipated, but also because Ray's T therapy cannot proceed without his father's signature on the consent form. Given that Ray's father, Craig (Tate Donovan) has long been out of the picture, his whereabouts unknown, the situation starts to seem overwhelming.
Dellal, who also co-wrote, throws so much into the film that it should feel overstuffed: Reproductive rights, marriage equality, non-traditional family structures, cross-generational tensions, gender roles, parental rights, sexual liberation, and even a hint of polyamory all find their way into the film's structure, often by way of its busy, but warm-hearted, dialogue. Dellal strikes off on tangents once in a while, but always loops back to Ray, and Fanning carries the film with strength and conviction. The overall result is a sense that it's not Ray who's confused or even "dysphoric," but all the adults he had to manage and to whose authority (and lack of understanding) his future is held hostage. Everyone's so busy co-opting his situation that hardly anyone actually listens to what he has to say. Finally, Ray blurts a blunt summary: "Quit making my problems you problems," he snaps. It's a cri de coeur that cuts through the noise and reminds us of the true meaning of empathy: Not to assume that we understand what someone else is feeling, but to be sensitive and responsive to their perspective, and their needs, all the same.