In the hands of a more capable filmmaker, 3 Generations could be a challenging, prismatic view of the gender identity discussion. Instead, it’s a sloppy waste of time.
At one point, 3 Generations was titled About Ray, named after its ostensible lead, a teenage trans boy played by Elle Fanning. The film’s millennial baiting marketing wants to present itself as an intimate portrait of a youth transitioning, but in reality, the film seems more concerned, not with Ray, but with how the people around Ray struggle with adapting to these changes.
In the hands of a more capable filmmaker, this could be a challenging, prismatic view of the gender identity discussion. Instead, it’s a sloppy waste of time genetically engineered to help liberal cis people reach their palms closer to their own shoulder blades to pat themselves on the back for intermittently remembering preferred pronouns.
The three generations of the new title refer to Ray, his mother Maggie (Naomi Watts) and grandmother Dolly (Susan Sarandon). The family all live together in Dolly’s place with her partner, Frances (Linda Emond). When we meet them, they’re all at an appointment with Ray’s doctor about him starting hormone therapy. Ray wants to move to a new school next year so he can start fresh with kids his age who don’t know him and have never seen him wearing a dress, so he needs to start the regimen soon, but to get started requires consent from both parents.
Maggie’s a single mother who’s put a lot of effort into understanding and supporting Ray with everything, but there’s clearly a lot about the paternity here she’s keeping close to the chest. Dolly, on the other hand, is a comically clueless lesbian feminist who can’t seem to grasp why her granddaughter wants a penis. Well, “comically” is a stress. Sarandon has a humorous screen presence, but the more and more she misgenders Ray and begins to leak idiocy from her perpetually gaping maw, the less funny it is and the more irritating it becomes.
This is the principal problem with the film. The sequences affixed to Ray’s perspective are compelling enough, using the device of Ray making a DIY documentary about his transition to offer insight into his interiority. Lots of Instagram-y cell phone footage and YouTube vlogging as voice-over narration, intercut with slice of life vignettes at school. But even though the central conflict is around whether or not Ray can take this big step and get a fresh start, most of the film is more concerned with how hard all of this is for Maggie and how confounding it is for Dolly.
Watts delivers another of her trademark underappreciated turns as this conflicted mother who’s done all the homework and read all the pamphlets, but still hasn’t made her peace with “losing her daughter.” Her scenes would read a lot less clunky if they weren’t repeatedly interrupted by Sarandon wandering around talking about the ’70s and asking why Ray can’t just be a lesbian. This would be great if it was all intended to be incisive commentary about how even the most progressive families are still conservative when forced to confront new concepts outside of their comfort zone. But it’s not. The movie feels written from this tiresome viewpoint and aimed squarely at like-minded individuals who need to be engaged on their own terms. None of this is aided by the third act twist that 1) doesn’t hold together on a purely logical level and 2) reeks of poor screenwriting. So much of the drama comes from leaps of logic and revelations doled out to elongate the narrative, feeling, at times, like a film school student’s second or third draft of a script rather than a finished product.
While the film is watchable and has its moments, it’s hard to divorce the middling execution from the wrongheaded decision-making that begat the project in the first place. Writer/director Gaby Dellal’s reasoning for casting a cis actress like Fanning (who delivers a fine performance) is right in line with the frustrating focus on Maggie and Dolly. It just seems like a strange decision to use the zeitgeist of trans narratives to tell a bland, vaguely generational tale of self-centered white women.
Who is this film for? It’s for the Dollys of the world, who want to make light of a difficult journey for as long as they can until they can begrudgingly grow just in time for the barely earned cathartic family dinner at the film’s denouement. But maybe they already have enough movies. Maybe it’d be nice for the Rays to get one.