What happens to the human body during the years of adolescence is nothing short of a freak show. Limbs grow disproportionately, hair starts appearing in weird places, the voice changes, but eventually, the adult self begins to show through. Arms and legs start evening out, features become sharpened and defined, and the visual identity that will determine your image to your world takes shape. It’s not always the most pleasant time for teenagers, and one can only imagine it’s doubly so for anyone who knows the gender they were born with is not the one they can live with. While the title of “About Ray” purports to be about one such boy going through this experience, the film might more accurately be titled “About Maggie.”
Naomi Watts plays Maggie, the mother of Ray (Elle Fanning), born Ramona, who is getting ready to begin the major steps of medically transitioning into a man. Maggie is a single Mom who seems to have never recovered from her rough and tumble younger days, moving in with her grandmother Dodo (Susan Sarandon) and her girlfriend Honey’s (Linda Emond) tremendously hip, jazz-musician-filled, New York City apartment after her child was born. The trio of women have all raised Ray, but none were expecting their little girl to become a grown man. In fact, the only one who doesn’t seem to be having any issues at all is Ray himself.
This is a crucial issue with the film as it steers the story away from what should be the most potent dramatic subject — Ray. “I’m not having a shitty day, I’m having a shitty existence,” he says in exasperation to his mother during one heated moment, but the script by Nikole Beckwith (“Stockholm, Pennsylvania”) and story by director Gaby Dellal (“On A Clear Day”) never really lets us in on what kind of experiences or feelings Ray is having. And certainly, being a transgender teenager, who is additionally gearing up to move from private to public high school (by choice), means grappling with a complex web of emotions, expectations, and hopes. However, other than Ray being a beatmaking musician, there’s very little sense of what his internal thoughts or life goals might be.
Instead, “About Ray” actually functions as something of a teachable dramedy for parents who might have their own transgender kids. The thrust of the mostly threadbare narrative finds Maggie forced to confront her past when she has to get the signature of Ray’s father, a man she hasn’t seen in over decade, on the medical forms before her son can begin full treatment. And so, secrets long buried will rise to the surface as the movie steps into a rather repetitive cycle of Ray asking if the forms have been signed, Maggie avoiding the question, while Dodo and Honey chime in with their quirky comic relief commentary. At times, “About Ray” plays foremost as a movie about paperwork, and only secondarily about the the larger issues between mothers, fathers, their children, and what it means to follow them through the gender journey together.
And one wishes the material were better since the picture gets a typically solid performance from Fanning. The young actress once again shows why she’s one of the best of her generation, finding the sweet spot of Ray being absolutely confident about who he wants to become, but absolutely terrified that it might not happen. There is simply no other option for Ray to live happily and fully in his own skin than as a man, and Fanning doesn’t nearly get enough scenes to really communicate this, but the few she does — including one startling breakdown — are great. Watts is also very good as Maggie, who fully supports Ray, but also has to deal with letting go of her little girl, and again, she doesn’t get enough opportunity to play those notes. In fact, the film as a whole — which runs far too scant at under 90 minutes — feels like it could’ve easily used another half hour to add the kind of texture, character, and complexity this story really deserves.
Instead, “About Ray” feels conflicted about what kind of movie it wants to be. On the one hand, the often clunky comedic elements point to a picture that wants to act like transitioning should be treated as an ordinary medical choice, and thus doesn’t want to make too big a deal about. And then there’s the serious drama, which becomes more prominent in the final third, which only scratches the surface of the deeper concerns of raising a transgender child. This all leads to a movie that falls rather shallowly between the two. “About Ray” passes by the narrative checkpoints and obstacles that you’d expect, and even literally pauses for a discussion at the dinner table where Ray explicitly explains what it means to be a girl born in a boy’s body. Ultimately, Dellal’s film is never as brave or courageous as Ray, and in spending more time on Maggie than her son, misses the opportunity to jump from informational to insightful. [C]