Two summers ago, ahead of her film’s original September 2015 release date, 3 Generations director Gaby Dellal walked into some hot pronoun water. In an interview with Refinery29, she blithely referred to the lead character, a transgender boy, as a girl, apparently because he had not transitioned yet. It was more than a little shocking to hear coming from a director you’d expect to have been immersed in trans issues throughout the making of the film.
Clumsy quotes are one thing, the emotional language of cinema is another. (I went into my screening completely ignorant of that interview, for what it’s worth.) But in this case the verbal slipup is a canary in a coal mine, denoting a film tripped up by its own superficiality. Dellal is lucky to have such a good cast on hand (though that’s been its own issue). But in the end, 3 Generations wants to to be about trans issues more than it really wants to live in them.
Ray (Elle Fanning) is a transgender high-school boy who desperately wants to begin hormone therapy, a development that leads to much hand-wringing from his mom, Maggie (Naomi Watts), and grandmother Dolly (Susan Sarandon). The three live together in a charming, ramshackle East Village apartment along with Dolly’s girlfriend, Frances (Linda Emond). Ray’s father, Craig (Tate Donovan), is out of the picture, but because Ray is a minor, he requires a signature from both parents in order to proceed with the reassignment process. Cue a messy family reunion, and at least one dramatic revelation.
The film, which has been pushed a year and a half past its originally scheduled release date, was formerly known as About Ray, not a stellar title but certainly more true to the film than its current name. 3 Generations is one of those movies that are never not about what they’re about, a film whose text bears more resemblance to a college term paper than a drama. (Crash is the epitome of this kind of movie; 3 Generations is at least better than Crash.) Each new scene is another combination of characters discussing their opinions and feelings about Ray’s gender status, and while this is good fodder for complex family drama, it feels more like a checklist lifted from a pamphlet about things to expect when your son or daughter comes out — well-meaning, emotionally unimaginative, and always at arm’s length.
The new title is also misleading about the balance between the three leads. Most of the film belongs to Fanning, who carries the role with great sympathy and urgency. She manages to balance universal teenage end-of-the-world dramatics with the existential crisis Ray faces if Craig won’t sign the release form. (“I’m not having a shitty day, I’m having a shitty existence!” she screams at one point.) Too often the script and direction turn her into a cute spectacle, but Fanning usually recovers.
But for the sake of conflict, if nothing else, I could have used much more of Sarandon’s character, who’s old-school in an artsy New Yorker way, and wonders why Ray can’t just be a lesbian. Her chemistry with Emond feels so sweet and lived-in, and you find yourself wishing they were your lesbian grandmas. At the same time, Dolly’s views are the most retrograde; she’s smart, liberal, loving, and decidedly un-woke. It’s a nuanced dynamic to pull off and Sarandon makes it look almost too easy.
Nobody gets dealt a worse hand in this film than Watts, though, whose character must not only be a mouthpiece for the more elusive Ray and a walking explainer for gender dysphoria, but also has to shoulder much of the third act’s soapy drama, without character development to back any of it up. I found myself quite sympathetic for Watts, who appears to have been told to just do the stressed-out thing she’s honed so well, while explaining to Sarandon’s character that being gay and transgender are not the same thing. (There is at least one scene between them in which the two actresses are clearly not in the same room.) In a particularly cringey postcoital scene with a nameless hookup played by comedian Jordan Carlos, Maggie monologues about the pros and cons of having a penis, for what feels like no one’s benefit.
Maggie is an illustrator, and we see her looking stressed and put-upon while staring at a drafting table full of childlike drawings of animals. She and Ray dress in an impressive array of perfectly slouchy sweaters and rakish hats, Craig lives in an Airbnb fantasy of a mid-century Hudson Valley home. The art department was clearly working overtime, perhaps to the detriment of the film. The strife of Ray and his family goes down a lot better when everyone’s dressed so cute and lives in such bohemian digs. While 3 Generations certainly has some worthy explorations, it’s too vain not to sugarcoat itself, visually or otherwise.