Adolescence is always awkward, but Ray is having a really tough time of it ? what with an absolutely absent father, a single mother who?s emotionally frayed and the usual teenage issues about looks.
Well, more than the usual issues. Because Ray was born Ramona ? and is now pushing to start the hormone treatments that will finally make ?her? look the way ?he? feels.
?About Ray? told that story ? but before it really got the chance, it became its own story. Casting Elle Fanning instead of a trans teen kindled internet anger, and its 2015 Toronto Film Festival premiere failed to put out those fires, or kindle new support; the movie?s initial release was cancelled.
It now reappears, with a gentler score, an involved and more intrusive edit, and a slightly longer running time. A new title, too ? ?3 Generations? ? which emphasizes a change in focus. Whatever this film is now, it?s no longer just about Ray.
None of which changes the film?s flaws, or its strengths.
One of its greatest assets, ironically, is the cause of the initial controversy, Fanning. Although the criticism is understandable ? there are few enough roles available for transgender actors ? she still gives a marvelous, and beautifully felt performance.
Up until a few years ago Fanning?s was known chiefly as the younger sister of Dakota, and the star of a lot of family-friendly movies. That?s changed recently, but ?3 Generations,? filmed several years ago, may be the earliest evidence, as she rides the emotional rapids, from chin-wobbling disappointment to jumping joy.
Fanning?s Ray is angry, demanding, insecure and emotional ? in other words, a perfectly normal high schooler. But it?s Fanning?s ability to create that onscreen normalcy that makes this story so accessible, and it?s her skill for conveying pain and doubt and disgust that makes Ray?s struggles so absolutely real.
It?s a striking accomplishment. And it?s not easy to stand out in this cast, which includes Naomi Watts as Ray?s empathetic but extremely confused mom and Susan Sarandon in a scene-stealing performance as Ray?s gay grandmother, a loud-and-proud bohemian who doesn?t get why the teenager can?t ?just be a lesbian.?
It?s to the movie?s credit that it doesn?t waste much time trying to explain Ray to Grandma, or us. (There?s sexual orientation, and there?s gender identity, it says early on. Different things. Now, let?s move on.) Nor does it try to speak for all transgendered youth. Instead it?s a movie about one person, and one family.
However Gaby Dellal?s direction, and writing, can be uncertain, and a little too dependent on punchlines. And while Sarandon is a terrific, constant I-told-you-so presence, Watts? character is less sharply drawn (and there?s a third-act complication about her past which doesn?t really add much except some change-the-subject soap opera).
But if you can look past the sitcom humor, that late-in-the-game melodrama and the usual cliche about the mature child in a family of immature adults, ?3 Generations? does a few important things. It presents an important issue without condescension or pandering. It puts the spotlight on an exciting young actress.
And ? mild but welcome spoiler alert here ? it?s actually a LGBT film with a happy ending.
Ratings note: The film contains violence and strong language.
?3 Generations? (PG-13) Weinstein (93 min.) Directed by Gaby Dellal. With Elle Fanning, Naomi Watts, Susan Sarandon. Now playing in New York.
TWO AND A HALF STARS
Stephen Whitty may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwhitty. Find him on Facebook.