Real Boy *****
Director: Shaleece Haas
Newly released in the UK, US documentary Real Boy follows the story of trans man Bennett Wallace, following him for the four years during which he transitions. Depicting how he came to terms with his gender as well as its effect on those around him, the film is a poignant but funny snapshot of a very personal journey.
In the opening sequence, we see footage shot when Bennett was Rachel during childhood. This is quickly juxtaposed with a YouTube video of Bennett at 19, during which he explains that he has changed his name. From that point onwards, Rachel is referred to only in the past tense by everyone except Bennett’s mother, Suzy, from whom he is experiencing the most on-screen resistance toward his transition. “We brought you up as Rachel,” she says, as though this is explanation in itself as to why he should not transition. And from these early sentiments, we follow Suzy’s journey as much as her son’s, during which she mourns the loss of a daughter before realising she has gained a son.
Bennett is a charismatic figure, whose ease in front of the camera is only emphasised by his mother’s discomfort. Similarly, his best friend Dylan – another young trans man – is open to sharing his journey with the camera; but both are children of the YouTube generation and both admit that similar shared journeys online are what helped them both through their darkest hours. As a result, we see open and honest accounts, both through footage shot by the camera crew and with candid footage shot on their iPhones in complete complicity with documenting what would otherwise be a very private process. What results is a complete log of their journey, showing their early days living as boys, through bodily changes resultant from testosterone pills, to their “top surgery” in the final scenes. In its totality, this is a fascinating journey.
We also meet Joe Stevens, a celebrated transgender musician, whom Bennett met as a fanboy and then struck up a friendship with. Joe explains that the things that define him as a person are that he is “transgender, an ex-addict and a musician”, all of which he has in common with Bennett. He sees in him a younger version of himself, wanting to protect and nurture him through the process he went through a decade before. As the movie progresses we see Joe battling with some personal demons too, but as a role model and mentor, he gives to Bennett what he is not getting from his mother; unconditional and unquestioning support.
In fact, the film underlines just how important one’s chosen family is. We see Bennett with the families of both Joe and Dylan and the unequivocal love they express toward him. His relationship with his own family is the exact opposite; Suzy is just the tip of the iceberg. We witness him receiving a text message from his sister on Thanksgiving, during which she accuses him of selfishness without even acknowledging the monumental life-changing steps her brother is going through. Where Suzy appears to be wrestling with her conscience about her son, the rest of the family appear to be just generally affronted by him.
This is more than just an account of a gender transition – of which there are now many on film. Recent Netflix release Made In Bangkok depicted something similar in their following a trans woman through her journey through surgery, but what makes Real Boy unique is its encapsulation of the obstacles Bennett must overcome. Really, his coming to terms with his gender identity should have been the only struggle, but the film starts once this has already taken place. The battle instead is with finding the support he needs for the struggle ahead, when that should already have been in place from his family. Told with a clear and well-paced narrative, Bennett comes across as a real hero for becoming such a well-rounded and strong man and watching his journey makes you feel like you have been part of something truly wonderful.