“About Ray” is an important trans film with a lesbian subplot

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Have you ever loved a movie despite it not completely satisfying all your needs? Like, it didn’t check off all your boxes, or one specific box that’s really important to you, but you still very much enjoyed it overall? I may as well be describing a girlfriend, but I’m actually talking about my relationship with Gaby Dellal’s About Ray, which, like the film, is funny but complicated.

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About Ray follows an incredibly likable family living in NYC–three generations worth. There’s the hilarious but somewhat close-minded Dolly (Susan Sarandon); her bit of a hot mess daughter, Maggie (Naomi Watts); and Maggie’s often-angry teenage son, Ray (Elle Fanning). Their home has another awesome resident in Frances (Linda Emond), Dolly’s partner. Ah, the reason for this review. If you’ve been living under a lesbian rock for the past year, yes, it’s true: Susan Sarandon is playing queer again. And, let me tell you, Linda Emond makes a great love interest.

But back to the plot. As you could’ve probably guessed based on the title, this movie is mostly about Ray. Although he’s young, Ray not only knows he’s a boy, but he’s already been transitioning for a while. Now he wants to start testosterone treatment, and suddenly things are very real for the whole family—as are some truths that come out.

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The most vocal voice against Ray’s transition is Dolly’s. That he wants to be a man when he could “just be a lesbian”—he likes girls—well, that baffles her. It’s meant to be a mindfuck, because how is it the lesbian of all people that is the transphobic one? Except as queer women, we know that people like that exist.

It’s uncomfortable to hear Dolly constantly use female pronouns when referring to Ray, yet you feel it doesn’t come from a place of malice–it’s ignorance. In reality, her actions contradict her words, because she’s there at every doctor’s appointment and seems to be as knowledgeable as Maggie is about what’s going on with Ray. Know who else is present at every appointment? Frances. About Ray may primarily be a story about three generations, but Frances is just as much a part of this family.

Dolly and Frances have been together for what we’re supposed to assume has been forever. Well, except for that time Dolly was married to Maggie’s dad—not that she was fooling herself: “I never thought I was straight. I was just pretending.” [Note: that right there, by the way, was Susan’s least favorite line in the film.] That’s pretty typical of Dolly, who makes a lot of excuses. Like how she and Frances aren’t married because they’re too “old school” for that. I don’t think Frances goes to the same school, but it looks like she’s admitted defeat on that front regardless.

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What she’s not going to cave on, though, is having Maggie and Ray move out so that she and Dolly can finally have the place to themselves. But it’s on Dolly to break the news. I have to say, I love this idea. It flies in the face of the notion that when we age, we must depend on our children to ensure we grow old with dignity. Of course not everyone has children, nor do circumstances always permit this for those who do. What’s more, not everyone’s idea of enjoying the last stages of life includes having their children watch over them. I know–shocking!

Even if she is a bit of a freeloader, Maggie is a great mom. But some things are even beyond her. Ray can’t get on treatment until he gets the right paperwork in, which requires Maggie’s signature, as well as Ray’s estranged father’s, Craig (Tate Donovan). This means Maggie has to track him down and, in doing so, face some unpleasant memories.

Dolly is there to say, “I told you so,” but also to provide some comfort and comic relief. It really works for the film. By mixing humor with a serious and timely subject matter, About Ray manages to hit some very important truths home while not being preachy. You go on a journey with this family, and I can’t imagine anyone coming out of this less sensitive to issues facing the trans community (certainly not anyone I want to know).

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On that note, Elle Fanning is amazing in this film. If there were any doubts that the 17-year-old could carry this movie, I think she silenced them the moment she broke out in wails when Ray finds out he probably won’t get his dad’s signature. The shouts of, “You ruined it!” when Ray discovers his mom’s past transgressions and how they make it nearly impossible to get his father on his side, I could feel his despair.

About Ray gets that right. They get Maggie right, who, despite being very supportive, is still struggling with the idea of fully letting go of her “daughter.” It gets a lot right, which is why I want tons of people to watch it, particularly those who want to understand trans individuals. But especially the bigots, even if that is a long shot.

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I can’t pretend I was thrilled with the “lesbian content” in the film. Dolly and Frances are a great couple, but if you turned off the sound and made sure there were no captions, you really wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from lifelong friends. It’s unfortunate because based on what Susan recently told us, they shot some scenes of them being physically affectionate–they just didn’t make it to the final cut.  

Turn on the sound and/or captions, and suddenly you have a power couple that are really the backbone of this family. And if you took a shot every time the word “lesbian” was mentioned–well hey, do that and let me know your thoughts on the movie immediately afterwards. So, once again, we don’t get it all, but given that this is a movie titled About Ray, I’m at peace with that. That is, as long as they release those cut scenes on DVD and Blu-ray.

 About Ray will be opening in theaters soon.

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