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Elle Fanning brings emotional honesty, strength and gnawing urgency to the central performance in About Ray, playing a transgender teenager born in a female body who has long since moved beyond any uncertainty that he’s a boy. The irony in director Gaby Dellal‘s fluffy comforter of a feel-good movie is that Ray’s story — and that of countless trans teens battling for ownership of their bodies — is trapped inside what in the old days might have been called a “women’s picture.” It’s involving but seldom deeply affecting, with the core drama continually shoved aside to examine more commonplace matters of parenting, abandonment and broken families.
The surge of transgender issues in the mainstream conversation, as well as Fanning’s compelling performance, will help the Weinstein Co. draw attention to this Sept. 18 release. But the lightweight treatment is a long way from the psychological texture or emotional trenchancy of other films about female-to-male transition, such as Boys Don’t Cry or French director Celine Sciamma‘s superb but little-seen Tomboy.
Dellal co-wrote the screenplay with Nikole Beckwith, and they constantly undermine the dramatic intensity of Ray’s in-between-ness by playing up the comedy of bantering and awkwardness in the clucking women that surround him. In fact, so much time is spent on Ray’s single mother Maggie that although she’s played with admirable empathy and relatable vulnerability by Naomi Watts, it starts to seem as if the film should have been called About Maggie.
A regular 16-year-old guy with a mop of bedhead hair who likes skateboarding and composing music on an electronic keyboard, Ray grew up as Ramona in a brownstone in New York’s East Village, full of women, jazz and chaos. The house belongs to his grandmother Dolly (Susan Sarandon), known as Dodo, an acerbic old-school feminist wryly bemused at having spent her life fighting for women’s rights so that her granddaughter could become a boy. She thinks Ramona should just follow her example and be a lesbian. Dodo and her longtime partner Frances (Linda Emond), nicknamed Honey, think Maggie and Ray are overdue to get their own place, but the time never seems right to bring it up.
The central conflict, introduced in an opening family visit with Ray’s doctor, is the necessity of a parental consent form before he can begin taking testosterone. The years of therapy and discussion of Ray’s choice are behind them, and yet Maggie still struggles with gender pronouns and with the larger decision, dealing with the loss of her daughter while fearing for the future of her son. “What if he turns around one day with a full beard and says, ‘Mom, I made a mistake?'” she asks.
There’s little doubt that Maggie will ultimately be supportive, but the consent form requires both parents’ signatures, meaning she has to track down Ray’s father Craig (Tate Donovan). He’s been out of the picture for more than a decade and is reluctant to endorse such a major step. Again, Dellal pushes hard with the cutesy low-key comedy, even when past intrigue is introduced with Craig’s brother (Sam Trammell). And the overwritten dialogue is laced with groaners, such as Dolly showing she’s on Ray’s side with a consolatory hug, saying, “It’s about time we had a man in this family.”
It seems fitting that Craig lives with his new family outside New York in Pleasantville, which is an appropriate name for the emotional terrain this skin-deep movie occupies.
About Ray is at its best in quiet moments centered on Fanning’s character, as he binds his chest or works out to develop his skinny girlish frame. There’s poignancy in the characterization of a brave individual eager to plunge into a more authentic life. And even after being assaulted and landing a shiner, Fanning underlines that beneath the bruises of experience Ray is driven by hope and a fully-formed sense of himself, irrespective of his current physical limbo. Too bad that moving story gets cluttered up with sugary banalities about the crazy thing we call family.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Opens: Friday, Sept. 18 (Weinstein Co.)
Cast: Naomi Watts, Elle Fanning, Susan Sarandon, Tate Donovan, Linda Emond, Sam Trammell, Jordan Carlos, Maria Dizzia
Production companies: Big Beach, InFilm
Director: Gaby Dellal
Screenwriters: Nikole Beckwith, Gaby Dellal
Producers: Dorothy Berwin, Gaby Dellal, Mark Turtletaub, Peter Saraf
Executive producers: Naomi Watts, Peter Pastorelli, Leah Holzer, Daniele Melia, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein
Director of photography: David Johnson
Production designer: Stephanie Carroll
Costume designer: Arjun Bhasin
Music: Michael Brook
Editor: Joe Landauer
Casting: Douglas Aibel, Stephanie Holbrook
Sales: IM Global
No rating, 87 minutes.
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