3 Generations | Gaby Dellal | May 5th, 2017
3 Generations, renamed with its original title after a change to About Ray post-Weinstein Company acquisition at Cannes in 2015, tries to be a film about a young woman transitioning into a young man and its effect on family dynamics, but it falls short. Ray (Elle Fanning) lives with his mother Maggie (Naomi Watts), grandmother Dolly (Susan Sarandon), and his grandmother’s girlfriend Frances (Linda Emond). The four women live in a 3-floor Manhattan apartment together. The film begins with the four of them having dinner, where Susan Sarandon’s Dolly is trying to understand why Ray just doesn’t “be a lesbian.”
Ray and his mother Maggie explain that being a man is Ray’s “authentic self.” This opening scene is, unfortunately, one of the only times where the characters openly discuss Ray’s transition. The rest of the film has snippets of Ray creating a short film which documents his transition journey. It has some insightful dialogue from Elle Fanning, but in the context of the film, it already comes off as a cliche. A lot of the characters come off as inexplicably rich New Yorkers that could only exist in the movies. Maggie is a seemingly struggling artist, Frances works for the UN, Dolly is seemingly retired, and Ray produces music mashups from his laptop. They are all passionately artistic, but these qualities don’t really tell us anything about their characters. It doesn’t add a lot of authenticity to the story and its heavily important modern themes.
Ray wants to transition as soon as possible in order to start a new year at a different school and just have a fresh start in life. The doctors need the signatures of both parents. Unfortunately for Ray, her mother Maggie and father Craig (Tate Donovan) haven’t spoken in more than a decade. Maggie decides to track Craig down on her own, which results in the movie becoming more about Maggie’s past struggles. That’s the main problem with 3 Generations. It goes back and forth between being a story about Ray and a story about Maggie and Craig.
Elle Fanning does a fine job as Ray, but her performance is directed in such an antagonistic way. Transgender rights is a passionate and important subject. When Ray finds out that his father might not sign the forms for his transition, he acts more like a spoiled teenager who didn’t get a car for his 16th birthday. It makes it extremely difficult to sympathize with Ray when he berates and speaks down to anyone who tries to understand and listen to him. When Ray finally meets his father, there is so much hostility in the room that it makes it hard to really root for either of them to form a bond. There are many “You’re ruining my life, Mom!” moments that turn a human identity struggle into a teenager not getting their way.
Then there’s also a romantic subplot between Maggie and Craig’s brother Matthew, who have a past. It creates unnecessary melodrama in a film that seems like it’s less about the trans experience and more about accepting your mistakes as an adult. Naomi Watts’ Maggie is a regretful and worried mother, and the movie turns into a story about her coming to terms with her past. Ray’s transition is more of a conduit for the adult story, which feels like a disservice to a film that should be more about the mental pain of not being able to be yourself.
Susan Sarandon is fine as Ray’s lesbian grandmother, but yet again we don’t really know much about her. Dolly and Linda Emonds’ Frances do add some comedic relief to the film, but it feels a little too goofy for such a serious subject. 3 Generations is honestly a better title for this movie than About Ray. The movie is not really about him. There are only a few moments where Ray really gets to shine. There’s a humorous and touching scene between Ray and Craig’s new children trying to understand if Ray is their brother. There are also a few scenes where Maggie and Ray come to an understanding and genuinely feel happy for one another.
Overall though, 3 Generations just feels like a huge missed opportunity to say something really important about the transgender experience. Ray is lucky to have such caring family and people that surround and support him. Not everyone can be that lucky. If the film took a harder look at the discrimination and other major issues facing the transgender community, it would definitely be a more important movie. Unfortunately, it only brushes the surface, never even close to going all in on its transgender story.