In the four years producer and director Shaleece Haas followed transgender teen Bennett as he grew into his identity and early adulthood, she managed to capture all the vagaries of family dynamics when they’re met with a sudden gap in generational understanding and tolerance.
When we meet Bennett in Haas’s documentary Real Boy, he has been on hormones for a few months and is living with his mother, Suzy. Bennett is in recovery from a series of addictions, which he says began with self-harm that eventually put him in the hospital for a cut tendon. Sober and excited to begin college with his new friend Dylan, who is also transgender, Bennett seems optimistic and excited for the challenges ahead of him. It’s his mother, unfortunately, who vocalizes most of the potential negativity in Bennett’s future life, largely stemming from her own transphobia and fear.
At first, it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for Suzy, who seems almost physically incapable of acknowledging Bennett’s new pronoun or even saying the word “transgender.” Suzy essentially excuses her discomfort with Bennett’s transition as a family tradition of refusing to “air dirty laundry,” not seeming to understand what a damaging way that is to describe her son. She doesn’t see why Bennett can’t just continue being Rachael.
Clip courtesy Independent Lens/PBS.
Their early conflict in Real Boy is over whether or not Suzy will accompany Bennett to Florida for his top surgery, a trip he’s taking with Dylan and Dylan’s mother. Suzy’s arrival at Bennett’s hospital bedside is clearly a turning point in their relationship and Suzy’s acceptance of her son, highlighting the tenderness that binds parents and their children even through painful conflict. Suzy breaks down in the parking lot with Dylan’s mother, having a moment of realization that even if she can’t understand Bennett’s choices, she has to support him with love.
But Real Boy doesn’t try to imply that there are easy answers or that Bennett isn’t still working through trauma from making his transition. His friendship with musician and transgender man Joe Stevens shows the struggle of addiction and establishing an identity on the inside as well as the outside. Bennett’s sister and father are elusive presences, who seem to reject Bennett’s overtures to establish a relationship since he began his transition.
The film occasionally deploys illustrations or strains of Bennett’s music to express what is most difficult to say, and ends with Bennett serenading Suzy, a promising note that will leave viewers hopeful for their ability to get through whatever lays ahead of them together.
Real Boy premieres on June 19 on PBS as part of Independent Lens.