A committed (and controversial) performance from Elle Fanning as a high school kid born Ramona — but identifying as Ray — is diced up and short-shrifted in this muddled comedy-drama. The title suggests the chief trouble: Director and co-writer Gaby Dellal’s attention is divided among three generations, with Ray’s mother (Naomi Watts) and grandmother (Susan Sarandon) commanding most of the screen time as they worry over Ray’s urgent wish to receive testosterone treatments. It’s not for nothing that generation and generic share a root; the characters scan as vague, of-their-age types, despite having each been dressed up with superficial quirks.
Watts’ Maggie is a children’s-book illustrator ashamed of some long-ago promiscuity; Sarandon’s Dolly is a late-blooming lesbian who, we’re told, was chummy with the jazz greats of the 1960s. But in practice, Watts is playing the overwhelmed Gen X parent, eager to honor her child’s choices but broke and living her own mother, while Sarandon is the boomer liberal who sees gender re-assignment as a selfish mistake. “I vote lesbian,” she announces, presuming her choice is right for everyone.
Fanning, meanwhile, exhibits gutsy longing as Ray, but the actress isn’t given many scenes to flesh out the character. Instead, Ray exists in wearying montage, feeling just one thing at a time, forever over-signifying millennialhood: He skateboards, he stares moonily into mirrors, he records and edits confessional video-diary entries, and he crafts loops on a MIDI controller. When his grandmother at last comes around to accepting that Ray is a boy rather than a girl, Ray rewards her by slipping headphones over her ears and bumping his freshest beats.
Sarandon’s Dolly is a sitcom motormouth, always saying the wrong thing and caught up in the hoariest of laugh-track storylines: She keeps delaying breaking some bad news to Maggie until it’s too late. Watts, meanwhile, is starring in a drama. Maggie must track down Ray’s long-estranged father (Tate Donovan) to get his signature on some paperwork authorizing Ray’s medical transition. He’s resistant, of course, and keeps getting the pronouns wrong: “What if she changes her mind?” he barks, in one of the film’s rare potent confrontations. Maggie’s response: “What if he commits suicide?”
Too few scenes breathe in this missed opportunity that’s forever cutting away to something else just when it seems the characters might be on the verge of truly talking to one another. In the third act, before a tiresome series of backstory revelations, Ray himself travels from his grandma’s Stuyvesant walkup to his father’s home upstate, where they face each other. These are moments of heat and confusion, but the film dares not let them play out. Instead, it jumps needlessly back to Maggie, in the city, telephoning to find a child who’s been missing just hours, and then to Maggie and Dolly’s low-comedy road trip to fetch Ray back home. If you think it’s more interesting to watch Sarandon worry about the cleanliness of gas-station bathrooms than to watch Ray try to convince the father he never knew to accept that he’s a boy, this is the movie for you.