Director Gaby Dellal’s “3 Generations” encourages its audience to look at the transgender community with a humane and compassionate eye, but her film will probably reinforce more perspectives than it changes.
“3 Generations” tells the story of a transgender teenager who is trying to persuade her biological parents to let her begin hormone therapy. The film is named for three generations of women living in the same New York City home. Homeowners Dolly (Susan Sarandon) and Frances (Linda Emond) are an unmarried lesbian couple. Dolly’s daughter Maggie (Naomi Watts) and her 16-year-old granddaughter Ray (Elle Fanning) have been living with them for some time, mostly for financial reasons.
Ray wants to begin taking testosterone as part of a gender reassignment therapy — she already has started going by the name “Ray” over her given name Ramona — but as a minor, both of her biological parents have to sign the paperwork to move forward. This makes a difficult situation even more complicated, as an already reluctant Maggie hasn’t had contact with Ray’s father in several years.
Ray is impatient with the process, hoping to complete her transition — which is currently being augmented by weightlifting, hygiene choices and the production of a first-person documentary film — before starting a different school for the coming year. We see some evidence of bullying at Ray’s current school, but we also see a lot of supportive friends.
Maggie might be accused of delaying the process, but eventually she sets out to find Ray’s father, Craig (Tate Donovan), which opens up a barrel of entirely new complications that redirect the narrative to Watts’ character.
Dolly is just generally impatient with the entire situation, struggling to understand a scenario that strains even her seasoned liberal sensibilities, and wishing her adult daughter would get her own place.
Intentional or not, Dellal’s film is an astute reflection of the confusion inherent in the situation. All the characters — even the ones you would expect to be most sympathetic — struggle to cope with the situation, constantly second-guessing pronouns and stumbling over their conversations, all to the consternation of Ray. Watts and Donovan are especially sympathetic as parents trying to reconcile the idea of the little girl they created becoming a young man.
At the same time, Dellal has a bad habit of trying to use wit to deal with situations that don’t feel all that funny. At one point, Ray comes home with a black eye, courtesy of a schoolyard bully. Since there are no steaks available — Dolly and Frances don’t eat red meat — they place a Cornish game hen on Ray’s bruise, and find the whole situation hilarious.
Moments like that, in addition to the bizarre and distracting plot twists that take place once Maggie finally tracks down Craig, create a product that tries hard but just doesn’t work. Putting Fanning’s face on the issue has a way of humanizing it, and the actress is strong in a challenging role, but by making its transgender character a minor, “3 Generations” introduces additional complications that could have used more attention rather than steering over to Maggie’s dysfunctional past.
“3 Generations” will generate sympathy for a difficult issue and, for Dellal and company, that may have to be enough.
“3 Generations” is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some sexual references and language; running time: 92 minutes.