“I am literally a boy with the wrong body parts,” remarks 19-year-old Bennett in the hour-long documentary, Real Boy. Feeling comfortable in one’s skin is never easy, especially during adolescence. But for someone like Bennett aka Ben aka Rachael, the roadblocks are especially daunting… and lonely.
In Real Boy, filmmaker Shaleece Haas gives transgender teen Bennett the space to reflect on the obstacles he’s faced as he affirms his rightful gender. We also meet his mom, Suzy, whose journey to accept her former daughter’s gender reorientation surgery and young adult male identity is equally challenging… and lonely. Real Boy debuts on the PBS series Independent Lens tonight, Monday, June 19, 2017, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings to confirm air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, and see below for online streaming info.)
Real Boy is framed by the family’s home movies, circa 1999, when sweet little Rachael appears on camera cheerfully enjoying playful antics with her mom, dad and sister. In footage shot by Ms. Haas over a four-year period, Rachael–the daughter, sister and tomboy who was applauded for her childhood eccentricities–has morphed into Bennett, who at age 19, is self-injecting testosterone shots and struggling to find his voice as a musician, a son, a brother and, most especially, as a young man.
As he navigates this rocky road, his mother strives to understand the intricacies of her child’s transition and provide the unconditional love and support that he needs. It’s not easy for her to contemplate the bodily changes that will result from his surgery, which is made clear when she muses that she too would rather have a new body… so she can look like Charlize Theron.
Bennett recalls how his incompatibility with all things female reached a breaking point at puberty, leading him to experiment with substance abuse, theft and a life-threatening pattern of cutting. Facing disbelief and rejection at home, he connected with other trans teens on the internet and forged a supportive relationship with transgender musician Joe Stevens. Although he’s acknowledged as a loving, life-saving presence in Bennett’s life, Joe faces dramatic substance abuse problems of his own which are introduced and abruptly glossed over.
As Bennett and his best friend, Dylan, also transgender, move to their new apartment, begin college life and face their first surgeries together out-of-state, their moms bond. Dylan’s mother encourages Suzy to accept and embrace Bennett’s transition.
Happily for her son, Suzy shows up at his hospital bedside and fulfills her care-giving responsibilities as his mom. However, his dad and sister fail to make an appearance, and their continuing rejection is given little more than a painful nod: “I just want to be loved by my family… it’s complicated for them,” says Bennett. Regretfully so; but as he yearns for their love and acceptance, he never seems to grasp, and the film fails to acknowledge, how the complex process of grief and grieving for Rachael has upended his mom, dad, sister, extended family and childhood friends.
There are other missed opportunities here as well. How did Rachael/Bennett fare in school, and when did it become apparent to her family and peers that Rachael was not simply a tomboy. And what about dating? There is passing mention of a dangerous cutting incident that sounds like it might have served as a transformative epiphany. The healing aspects of Bennett’s obvious talent as a singer/guitarist/songwriter are underplayed, and the relevent back stories of his mom and dad and Bennett’s mentor, musician Joe Stevens, are unfortunately never fully explored.
Those quibbles aside, Real Boy honors and respects Bennett’s voice and, for that, it should be a welcome and comforting addition to programs for other adolescents in the process of questioning their own gender identities and transitioning, as well as for family members and the friends who love them.
Real Boy debuts on the PBS series, Independent Lens tonight, Monday, June 19, 2017, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings to confirm air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.) The film will also be available for online streaming beginning June 20, 2017, at http://pbs.org/independentlens –Judith Trojan