Some critics tend to treat movies more harshly for not living up to their potential, but that always seems to make the criticism more about the critic than the movie itself, as if the movie is responsible for its audience’s expectations for it. About Ray is the type of movie with loads of potential, with a solid cast and a compelling, topical story for our time. It’s tempting to lament the ways it could have truly lived up to becoming a defining mainstream film on transgender issues, bringing the subject to a broader audience than have been reached by more obscure movies and TV shows, but that wouldn’t be fair. As it stands, the film will hopefully inspire discussion and reflection among people who may have never been exposed to trans issues, and that alone makes it valuable.
Its premise is part of its problem: Ray (Elle Fanning), who was born Ramona, is a transgender teenager looking to begin testosterone treatment, but requires signatures from two parents for his treatment to take place. His mother Maggie, played by Naomi Watts, is confused and scared but generally supportive, and cautiously willing to sign off on the treatment, but Ray’s father has been out of the picture since Ray was very young.
Much of the action of the film derives from this quest to get the signature from the father, and I couldn’t help but find it absurd. Brief consultation with the medical professionals I am acquainted with, including some who have worked in transgender clinics, agree that this is an unthinkable scenario. Granted, this is a perspective from Canada—does a situation like this make sense in the Ameircan health system? Regardless, it’s a point of distraction that is difficult for the film to overcome.
Implausible premise aside, there is significantly more awkwardness within this film than many might anticipate, stemming from its tone, which tends to veer toward quirky family comedy than topical drama. Much of this comes from Susan Sarandon’s character Dolly, Ray’s lesbian grandmother, who is cast in the same type of role as Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine, milked for laughs while establishing her as Ray’s biggest supporter, despite the generational gap.
Maggie also has her share of light-hearted quirkiness, but this gets overshadowed by her hesitancy to sign off on Ray’s treatment, a conflictedness that is not fleshed out well enough to make her situation sympathetic. This all points to one of the principal weakness that the movie possesses: despite its title, much of its attention is paid to the support system in Ray’s life—it’s not so much about Ray as about Ray’s world, emphasizing other’s thoughts about Ray more than Ray’s perspective, which is what I and others were hoping for.
Once again, this is not necessarily the movie’s fault. And to the film’s credit, there are a lot of strong scenes that make it enough to recommend. One scene in particular features Ray explaining his gender identity to two young children over a family dinner. It’s a terrific answer to the common fear “How will we explain these issues to children?” It unfolds in such a matter of fact way that demonstrates the concept that the body someone is born in to can be out of alignment with their gender identity is not nearly as complicated as many wish to make it out to be. Many scenes are made stronger thanks to the fine work of Fanning, Watts and Sarandon. Particular Fanning though, who makes Ray by far the film’s most sympathetic and likeable character (again, I wish more of About Ray was about Ray!).
It’s worth remembering that this is a Weinstein film, meaning it will probably be seen by a wide audience who, shall we say, is closest to Dolly in perspective. While not perfect, as an introduction to trans issues, About Ray can serve as a decent gateway for anyone who has yet to be exposed to the spectrum of LGBT, and there are certainly more folks who lack this exposure than you might think.
About Ray is not, in the end, a triumph, but is still good and necessary viewing for its subject matter.