“Real Boy” Chronicles A Young Man—And A Family—In Transition

A trans teen navigates the difficult road to adulthood in this poignant doc from director Shaleece Haas.

In this golden age of documentary filmmaking, it’s exciting to see so many transgender stories being told. One of the best, Real Boy, is airing June 19 on PBS—and unlike so many sensational depictions of trans people, it offers an understated, quietly unfolding account that’s characterized by its respect and affection for its subject.

Director Shaleece Haas follows teen musician Bennett Wallace as he transitions and gets ready to head off to college with his fellow trans man Dylan. Along the way, Ben is lucky to connect with a trans-guy mentor, singer-songwriiter Joe Stevens, who takes Ben under his wing.

Watching Ben, his family, and friends share their ups and downs, their conflicts, connections and most intimate moments, is a generous gift to viewers. But Haas doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff: The film thoughtfully addresses struggles with substance abuse and sobriety (issues all too familiar in the LGBT community) and brings us along for the emotionally complex journey of charming and articulate Ben and his initially skeptical but always loving mom.

“I just want to be loved by my family,” Ben explains. “And I think that for my family it’s not quite as simple as that… It’s complicated for them.”

Displaying both the struggle and the strength of what it means to be true to yourself in a world not ready to understand you, it’s the kind of film many of us queers wish we could show to our parents. The evolution of Ben’s mother as she navigates towards a deeper understanding of her son is one of Real Boy’s strongest facets. “The ultimate goal for any parent,” she insists, “is that their kid is happy.”

With the film getting a national broadcast on PBS, it’s powerful to envision her as a role model, one who may help other parents of transgender folks be more supportive and loving allies to their kids. Most importantly, trans youth will welcome some real-life heroes. Real Boy is a validating, celebratory experience—tune in with a box of tissues.

Real Boy airs June 19 at 10pm on PBS

Jenni Olson is a is one of the world's leading experts on LGBT cinema history and a co-founder of PlanetOut.com. Her latest film project is "The Royal Road."