What The Critics Got Wrong About “3 Generations”

A movie about a trans boy, his mom, and lesbian grandmother defies expectations, partly by being so familiar.

Originally scheduled for release in September 2015, About Ray was pushed back after premiering earlier that month at the Toronto International Film Festival. And though it was released internationally last year, the film mysteriously remained MIA stateside. This month, the Weinstein Group finally released the film in the U.S., rechristened 3 Generations.

It has not been warmly received by the critics.

In the film, directed by Gaby Dellal, Elle Fanning stars as transitioning teen Ray. His single mom, Maggie, is played by Naomi Watts, and his old-school lesbian grandma is played by old-school lesbian icon Susan Sarandon. (It’s amazing to realize that Sarandon’s pioneering lesbian portrayal in The Hunger was nearly 35 years ago). These are the titular three generations. Also worth mentioning is a wonderful performance from Linda Emond as Sarandon’s life partner, Frances.

3 Generations/The Weinstein Group
3 Generations/The Weinstein Group

Now in theaters—at least for a minute—before coming to digital on June 13, 3 Generations has an abysmal 30% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s been trashed by mainstream critics—most of whom note the film’s failure to devote more time to Ray in favor of the experiences of his family and how they cope with his desire to transition.

It’s sort of amusing that straight critics have had so much consciousness-raising on trans representation that they know enough to offer this as a critique. Certainly we are overdue for the film they’re requesting, but taken on its own terms I was surprised by how likable 3 Generations actually is.

There’s no question it has formulaic qualities and a predictability in its structure as it dutifully ticks off all the standard trans tropes: breast-binding, finding a gender-neutral bathroom, a bully who demands to know “are you a boy or a girl?” before giving Ray a black eye, and an array of misgendered pronouns. But as a cathartic portrayal of a trans boy’s journey towards transition, it offers a powerful experience for trans youth and their families.

3 generations

In 25 years of writing about queer cinema, I’ve discovered that what most LGBT audiences really want to see is not innovative, sophisticated, complex cinematic achievement. They want straightforward, often formulaic, stories with known stars and good production values that look like regular movies—but featuring LGBT characters.

The primary suspense in 3 Generations comes from Ray’s need to get a permission form signed to start hormone therapy, a more complicated matter than he had hoped. Interstitial iPhone videos and voiceover provide a visceral, if at times contrived, first-person perspective on Ray’s story. And without spoiling anything, I can tell you 3 Generations actually has a happy ending.

3 Generations
3 Generations/The Weinstein Company

We have miles to go in trans cinema (including the need for casting more trans actors) but 3 Generations has its heart in the right place. And not just for trans representation—Sarandon and Emond’s depiction of a lesbian relationship is dynamic and interesting.

As the sarcastic, slightly alcoholic Dolly, Sarandon gets all the best lines.

Ray: For a lesbian you’re pretty judgmental.

Dolly: Well, having sex with women doesn’t mean you’re open-minded. It just means you’re happy.

As for the title change and the long wait on the release, it’s easy to see that the marketing department was struggling to find the best approach. The initial promo materials for About Ray paint it as a serious drama with an emphasis on Ray. The new 3 Generations trailer, though, tells us we’re getting a warm, star-studded comedy where Ray’s transition is the backdrop to an array of complex relationships.

Compare these tag lines and then watch the trailers.

About Ray
A story about a family. In transition.

3 Generations
Just because you’re related. Doesn’t mean you can relate. 3 of the most acclaimed actors of their generations in a human comedy for today.

About Ray

3 Generations

The two versions of the poster art reflects the different approaches, as well. The original About Ray print campaign showcased the three actors in an autumnal New York City setting.

About Ray

3 Generations gives us a pastel triptych and slightly whimsical title treatment that makes it look strangely akin to the Jamie Lee Curtis-Lindsay Lohan remake of Freaky Friday.

3 Generations

Teen audiences expecting a wacky adventure will be sorely disappointed, but maybe they’ll stick around and learn something.

The Weinstein Company deserves credit for battling the MPAA to get the film a PG-13 rating instead of the R it was originally saddled with, which would’ve prevented the very teens it could benefit from seeing it.

It may be another imperfect trans film, but I’d take the uplifting melodrama and the happy ending of 3 Generations over the The Danish Girl’s cloying tragic drama any day.

Jenni Olson 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."