By Tyler Stevens, Contributing Writer
While long-delayed road to distribution has yet to be fully explained, this film’s change in title from About Ray to its current title, “Three Generations,” feels perfectly fitting. The story follows Ray’s (Elle Fanning) battle to convince his estranged father to sign release forms allowing Ray to begin medically transitioning to a male. Yet most of the story hardly feels like it is “about Ray” at all. Most of the film focuses on Ray’s mother (Naomi Watts) and her various troubled relationships with her daughter-turned-son, her mother (Susan Sarandon), and Ray’s father (Tate Donovan).
Fanning, Watts, Sarandon, and Donovan are all top-notch performers, and the film’s topical perspective should have lent itself wonderfully to society’s ongoing conversation about gender identity. Instead of a nuanced character piece about transgender youth, though, we get a messy, unfocused family drama that steeps itself in melodramatic clichés and devotes far too much of its runtime to the story’s least interesting characters. Ray, for what it’s worth, is not one of those characters. He’s endearing and dynamic, his internalized struggles and fears portrayed wonderfully by Elle Fanning. While the practice of casting cisgender actors/actresses in transgender roles has been roundly and rightfully criticized by the movie-going community at large, there’s no denying that Fanning delivers a vulnerable, immensely human performance as Ray, one that is as empathetic as it is underutilized. Everything from a technical standpoint indicates that Ray is the lead character of this story, from the sound design that forces us into Ray’s perspective to the cinematography that often lingers closely on Ray’s face as he rides in cars and skateboards around New York City. However, none of that translates to the script, co-written by Nikole Beckwith and the film’s director Gaby Dellal, which far too often relegates Ray to the sidelines, forcing him to watch (sometimes literally) from afar as the film focuses on Naomi Watts struggling as the mother of a transitioning child. Watts’s struggles seem miniscule compared to Ray’s tumultuous journey, yet the film’s insistence on exploring every facet of her relationship with her son, her mother, and her exes suggest that the film’s not really interested in making this story “about Ray”. The filmmakers are more intent on telling the story of how switching genders takes a toll on those we love, which seems less important and affecting at a time when transgender hate crimes are on the rise and society could use a story that humanizes transgender lives and struggles rather than a story that excruciatingly pities the family members around them.
The filmmaking on display here is very competent, suggesting that there is a story out there more deserving of David Johnson’s wonderful cinematography and Fanning’s sensitive performance. Yet this story is undone by unengaging dramatic diversions and script that far too often indulges in dialogue that alternates between faux-clever and frustratingly literal. The film industry will continue to search, probably through a confounding trial-and-error method, for the perfect way to tell transgender stories. It’s a search that will likely take far too long and result in a few too many missteps. Ultimately, “Three Generations” seems destined to come and go as just one of those missteps, missing the opportunity to tell a story that desperately needs to be told.