Film Review: 3 Generations

A “new normal” family grapples with a gender-transitioning teenager. Not dull, but not really credible either.
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Gaby Dellal’s 3 Generations is an engaging (at least to the extent that it holds your attention) and equally off-putting flick about, well, many things, but largely a teenager named Ray (Elle Fanning) who was born female but has always identified as a boy and has his sights set on transitioning. He’s determined to start hormone-replacement therapy as a stepping stone to genital-reassignment surgery.

The life of a transgender person at any stage of the game is a complex subject to tackle and can quickly disintegrate into a sensationalized (or dreary) case study and/or a sentimental melodrama and/or tragedy for the beard-stroking professor/psychologist and/or rubbernecking gawker sitting in the dark. Even successful films on the topic—from Boys Don’t Cry to Transamerica to The Danish Girl—navigate a slippery slope.

3 Generations is admittedly a departure. This one exists in a kind of sitcom land—with an improbable sprinkling of daytime drama—where the “new normal” family has evolved into a whole other (arguably absurdist) level that celebrates multi-generational, “quirky” clans who revel in their bohemian squalor and non-traditional relationships.

Residing in the same depressed three-story hovel, the family here includes Ray’s single mom Maggie (Naomi Watts), a hapless child-woman; her busybody lesbian grandma, Dolly (Susan Sarandon), affectionately known as “Dodo”; and Dolly’s longtime lover Frances (the always wonderful Linda Emond), whose blousy outfits, disheveled hair, thick black-rimmed glasses and heavily applied red lipstick are comically grotesque.

Written with broad strokes, the aging lesbians are old-school. They saw no reason to get married. Their generation wasn’t into it, Dolly proclaims. She also wonders aloud why Ray needs to transition. “Why can’t she just be a lesbian? She already likes girls.” When Dolly finally “gets it,” her eyes swell with tears as she makes nice with Ray: “We always needed a man in the house.” It’s not intended as a laugh line but rather a good-humored and affectionate expression of apology, reconciliation and approval.

Maggie struggles with Ray’s life-altering decision, though she’s “proud” too. Still, it’s difficult for her to sign the legal consent form that’s necessary for her child’s irrevocable procedure to begin. She must also obtain an okay from Ray’s father, Craig (Tate Donovan), who has been out of the picture from the get-go. Now happily married and living in Pleasantville (a real Westchester town and none-too-subtle metaphor), he’s the father of three young children and is troubled to see Maggie on his doorstep. Old wounds fester and erupt. There’s recrimination on all sides. He refuses to sign the consent form.

As it turns out—this one has plot twists—he’s not Ray’s biological father at all. He’s her uncle. Craig’s brother (Sam Trammell) is the real dad with whom Maggie had an affair and he too has re-entered the picture after 16 years, weighing in with an opinion on Ray’s decision. See? Farce and suds coalesce. “Coagulate” is the more precise description.

The big problem is that Ray’s private hell is no longer the film’s only focal point. His crisis is on par with—maybe even secondary to—other concerns, not least his desire to have a warm and fuzzy extended family of dad/uncle, uncle/dad; stepmom/step-aunt; step-siblings/step-cousins, along with Maggie, Dodo and Frances.

There’s something inauthentic and ridiculous about all of it. Transitioning is not just another example of everyday modern life, even as the creative team—Dellal and co-writer Nikole Beckwith—attempt to “normalize” the event by incorporating it into the New Family’s narrative in a genial genre-blending universe that’s neither fish nor fowl but oddly banal and middlebrow. One senses the filmmakers’ conflict over how to recount the “transitioning” experience while fashioning it into something larger that sheds new light on the topic and simultaneously broadens its appeal.

They’re not alone this season. In Saturday Church—a Tribeca Film Festival offering—an inner-city youth wrestles with his sexual identity and escapes his brutalizing Bronx family to find solace among young trans people in the West Village as he begins his own transition to womanhood. It’s a sociological drama. It’s also a musical. La La Land meets Moonlight.

In the so-bad-it’s-good category, check out Walter Hill’s The Assignment, a lurid high-camp crime drama about a brilliant and demented surgeon played by the inimitable Sigourney Weaver (who corners the market on paralyzed facial muscles and a blink-less gaze). Seeking revenge on her brother’s killer, she arranges for his kidnapping and performs genital-reassignment surgery on him. Physiologically he is now a she and bent on getting even. Some members of the LGBTQ community charge the film with transphobia. Weaver’s disgraced doctor as stereotypically butch—sporting close-cropped hair and men’s suits and ties—and the fluid sexuality of the criminal protagonist (Michelle Rodriguez) probably don’t help. Idiotic though it may be, it’s a harmless Grade B movie and more successfully realized than 3 Generations. It’s not claiming to be anything other than what it is. But given the zeitgeist, perhaps it’s a miscalculation.

Time-wise, 3 Generations is more on target in its subject, tone and theme. The performances are fine too, especially Fanning as the boyish teen trapped in the wrong body—a risk-taker who’s awkwardly shy, brazen and vulnerable, enraged and haunted. If only the film didn’t feel quite so smug in its pervasive “who we are now” flavor. Dare I say it? Most in the audience aren’t.

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