Shortly before it was pulled from its intended release date back in late 2015, Gaby Dellal’s 3 Generations went by About Ray, bluntly referencing the film’s protagonist, Ray (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old who’s preparing to undergo hormone replacement therapy. The title change, while minor in its own right, is indicative of the larger problematic treatment of the character in his own narrative, where he’s too often pushed to the sidelines so that the filmmakers can indulge their fondness for tired family-drama tropes.
At its finest, 3 Generations zeroes in on Ray’s mental and physical discomfort in his own skin and his growing frustrations and impatience with his mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), and grandmother, Dolly (Susan Sarandon), who, while mostly supportive, aren’t as ready as Ray is for his therapy to commence. But all attempts at achieving lasting emotional resonance in regard to Ray’s internal experience are repeatedly thwarted by superfluous subplots that steal the spotlight from the film’s supposed protagonist.
Fanning conveys Ray’s internal struggles without resorting to mannered bodily tics or overly emotive declarations. When the girl who Ray has been lusting after at school refers to him as a girl, Fanning’s face subtly expresses the entirety of her character’s crushing disappointment at being misgendered, however unintentionally, by someone for whom he has feelings. His ongoing battle, however, is unfortunately restricted mostly to the domestic space and his quest to get both of his parents to sign the underage consent form. This brings with it a cacophony of outsider perspectives which minimalize the difficulty of Ray’s unique journey and marginalize his point of view.
Since Maggie has been raising Ray by herself, with the help of Dolly and her longtime partner, Frances (Linda Emond), she’s forced to start the search for her ex to get his signature. This hunt for Ray’s father, Craig (Tate Donovan), who’s been out of the picture for over a decade, brings Maggie’s tumultuous past into the foreground, particularly her affair with Craig’s brother, Matthew (Sam Trammell), which caused the vicious breakup of the couple years ago. Along with Ray’s sudden bonding with his newly discovered half-siblings, 3 Generations also throws in an asinine subplot where Dolly and Frances decide, during this stressful time, to force Maggie and Ray to move out so they can have a fresh start in this new chapter of their lives.
The film’s insistence in extending equal time to every major character’s difficulty at dealing with Ray’s decision disempowers Ray by giving an air of legitimacy to their hesitance to accept him without reservation. While the reactions of Ray’s loved ones are certainly worthy of attention, the intense focus they’re given leaves Ray as a half-formed character playing off the loved ones around him rather than exploring his identity on his own terms.