As a teenager transitions from female to male, his family grapples with how to react.

TIFF2015 review

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Equal parts earnest public service announcement and screwball family drama, About Ray has more issues with identity than its titular character, played with emotional eloquence by Elle Fanning. Indeed, the teenage Ray is quite clear on who he is: a boy born in a girl’s body. It’s Ray’s very certainty that sends the rest of the family into chaos: he wants to begin hormone therapy to help masculinise his body; his mother Maggie (Naomi Watts) and grandparents (a lesbian couple named Dolly and Frances played respectively by Susan Sarandon and Linda Emonds) are ambivalent, to say the least. That Ray’s elders are Manhattan bohemians—progressive for their time but perhaps not for his—is a welcome twist in a film that otherwise plays its subject matter pretty straight.

Of course the telling of transgender stories is politically fraught: Fanning’s casting here and that of Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl have raised questions of appropriation and authenticity in performance. Narratively speaking, there is an argument to be made for treating Ray’s desire to transition the way you might any other bump in the teenage road—that these stories perform a social good, and help foster greater understanding, and should be made with such responsibilities in mind. Having sat through About Ray, I am not about to make that argument. Which is to say that as a social vehicle, About Ray is competent enough; as a film about real people negotiating difficult situations, it is something less than that.

Director Gaby Dellal (On A Clear Day) also conceived the story for About Ray, which unfolds largely inside the cramped quarters of the duplex Maggie and Ray share with Dolly (Sarandon) and Frances (Emonds). The necessity of this arrangement is unclear, as are details about Maggie’s profession (she appears to be an illustrator), and the connection of Dolly and Frances to the jazz musicians passing in and out of the house. There is a sense of compression to the film, as though it were distilled from a more expansive form, like a novel, and only ghost traces of that work’s backstory remain. Much of the film’s energy and running time is given over to trying to extract a dramatic charge from constant bickering, miscommunication, and recrimination.

In that sense, Fanning’s Ray couldn’t be a more ordinary teenager; nor Maggie a more generally harried, harassed mother. Ray is hyper-focused on getting signed the parental permission forms he needs to begin testosterone therapy, and almost all of their scenes together revolve around (and are drained by) that quest. Despite Maggie’s role as the film’s educational consort on transgender issues (she is forever correcting pronoun usage and lapses into illness metaphor—“It’s not something that ‘gets better’ because it’s not bad,” she tells one character, “it just is.”) she is ambivalent about such a large step. The more convenient obstacle is Ray’s birth father Craig, a man virtually unknown to his daughter, much less his son. Played by Tate Donovan, once tracked down Craig becomes the suburban voice of caution, if not bigotry by another name.

The beautiful wood and glass country home where Craig lives with his wife and three young kids becomes a new, more spacious venue for the characters’ carrying on. Much of the latter half of About Ray takes place on Craig’s turf, where the story is as much about Maggie and the mistakes she made while trying to grow up herself as it is about Ray’s impatience to begin life in the body he wants. Nikole Beckwith’s script emphasises a sly, sideways wit that helps cut the film’s earnestness, but sometimes lands awry. Sarandon in particular gets a little lost in Dolly’s deadpan zany act. Dellal treats the scene in which Ray is targeted by his peers with deftness, but then pushes the lightness of the family’s response a Cornish hen feather too far.

If About Ray feels puzzlingly rote and even dull at times, textured performances from Fanning and Watts ensure that it’s never less than watchable. Fanning’s mixture of confidence and vulnerability make radiant a character whose complexity is left unexplored. Her Ray is a study not in transition but in something even more rare: poise rooted in self-possession.


1 hour 27 min
In Cinemas 18 September 2015,