Though transgender issues couldn’t be more timely, it’s a shame “About Ray” didn’t open a few years ago, when its tiptoeing approach to the physical realities of gender reassignment might have been just the ticket to help ease more skittish viewers into understanding and accepting the whole idea. A crowdpleaser in the purest middlebrow mold, Gaby Dellal’s picture features Elle Fanning as a transgender teenager hoping to begin hormone treatment and start transitioning into a boy, and the film he inhabits proves much lighter and more irreverent than that premise would seem to indicate. Though the results are at times messy, and often veer too far into the standard quirky family-indie formula (producers include Marc Turtletaub and Peter Saraf, who patented that formula with “Little Miss Sunshine”), Dellal’s likably chaotic direction and a bevy of solid performances make sure the film’s beating heart outweighs most of its contrivances.
The film starts in a doctor’s office, as teenage Ray (Fanning) — nee Ramona — learns what to expect once he starts testosterone treatment. Ray’s matriarchal support system is unusually well positioned to accept his changing identity, even if the women each betray an occasional hint of discomfort: Mother Maggie (Naomi Watts) has raised him independently for years, and grandmother Dolly (Susan Sarandon) is an out lesbian in a long-term relationship with Frances (Linda Emond). The limberly dotty Dolly does wonder out loud: “Why can’t she just be a lesbian? She likes women,” and the film has fun with the idea that this may one day be a stock conservative lament.
Inhabiting a version of Manhattan that largely still exists only in the minds of indie filmmakers and MFA students, the clan lives in a wonderfully cluttered, multi-story building that used to be a sanctuary for itinerant jazzmen. Ray is desperate to start his hormone treatment in time to switch schools before the start of the next term, so as to reintroduce himself as a boy. (In one of the film’s more glaring omissions, we see Ray with a posse of male friends, but it’s never exactly clear how much any of them know about his situation.)
Maggie, however, is dragging her feet on signing the parental consent form, which suddenly presents a major complication: The form requires both parents’ signatures, and Ray’s father, Craig, hasn’t been around for years. It’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be a standard legal route around such a dilemma, but the film needs a hook to get Maggie to reunite with her old flame, and this one works well enough.
Indeed, despite its title, ”About Ray” is just as much about Maggie, as she must confront her own highly complicated romantic past by schlepping out to the suburbs, where Craig (Tate Donovan) lives with his new wife (Maria Dizzia) and three young children. Initially seeming like a subplot, this strand comes to dominate the latter half of the film, and it’s hard not to see the core story slipping away from the filmmakers at times. But the script from Dallal and Nikole Beckwith manages to be consistently funny, and its ultimate celebration of the post-post-nuclear family is sincere enough to overlook some of its structural problems.
Activists have often decried the casting of cisgender actors in trans roles (recently on display with Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl”), and often with very good reason. But considering the titular character here has not yet begun any sort of medical treatment, all that matters is that the actor playing him be believable, and Fanning certainly is. Portraying Ray as authentically awkward yet far beyond any sort of confusion over his identity, Fanning’s performance allows him to be both righteously troubled and also just a bit of a standard-issue d–khead teenager, stomping down stairwells, defying his elders and getting awkward around girls like any good All-American dude.
Tackling the Alan Arkin role, Sarandon gives a half-sarcastic glint to her line readings, even the serious ones, and her rapport with Emond is positively vaudevillian, yet smaller doses of her antics might have better served the story. Watts at times seems to struggle with a character that’s being pulled in two different narrative directions, but she finds enough small moments and idiosyncrasies to flesh her out.
Embracing the all-over-the-place nature of the script, Dallal directs with a skewed eye and a careening pace that recalls David O. Russell at its best moments, and an average skateboard video at its lesser ones. In a post-Caitlin Jenner landscape, “About Ray’s” delicate portioning of physical details — a tuft of unexpected underarm hair here, an oblique discussion of male genitalia there — can definitely err on the side of caution. But this is the rare trans-themed comedy that most viewers could safely take their grandparents to, and there is something to be said for that.