Real Boy

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Real Boy
"By juxtaposing their conversations and a wealth of observational footage capturing them in day to day life, Haas illustrates how much mother and son really have in common."

A real crowd pleaser at the festivals where it has played, Real Boy is the story of 19-year-old Bennett, who is growing up fast and looking forward to having his breasts removed, and the mother who wants her little girl back. It's a story about more than one kind of transition, about the tensions between individuals and families and between families and wider society. Beautifully observed, a tough watch in some places but ultimately heartwarming, it takes issues that get batted around in newspapers and TV debates and restores the humanity that makes them matter in the first place.

There are a lot of documentaries out there about transition, often focusing on medical aspects, and whilst these are important - especially to trans people and families without much local support - they often neglect to fill in the bigger picture. Surgery isn't the only important thing in Bennett's life. He's going to college. He's trying to build a career as a musician. He's had struggles with addiction in the past, and though he now seems well adjusted he has that constant awareness of the necessity of staying sober. As his mother talks about his gender and how she feels she's losing the person she loved, it becomes apparent how much she has buried her worries about these other issues - worries many parents will relate to - until they have spilled over. And whilst Bennett's greater confidence makes it easy to see him as the sensible one, occasional flashes of youthful vulnerability illuminate the fear she must be feeling.

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"I mean, I know what a pilot light is, I just don't know how to work it," he declares to a friend, complaining about all the primitive technology in his new home.

Director Haas has a real gift for showing rather than telling us about the undercurrents at play. Bennett's feelings of rejection because of his mother's lack of acceptance, and the lingering love that underlies those feelings, come out in his voice as much as his words. She talks about how everybody would like to change things about their bodies but we have to accept ourselves, and he asks, with the callousness of youth, if that's why she had plastic surgery. In a later conversation, she discusses the way attitudes to gender are changing and her perception that trans and gender variant people have always been around but are only now being open about it; there's something in her tone that hints at years of compromise and frustration with social limitation she's faced due to people's expectations of her gender. Bennett, meanwhile, attends a college class about feminism and demonstrates that he's no less alert to the nuances of such discrimination because he's a boy.

By juxtaposing these conversations and a wealth of observational footage capturing them in day to day life, Haas illustrates how much mother and son really have in common in their worldviews and their feelings for one another. Over time, as he boldly makes his way in the world, determined to live on his own terms, she meets other people with trans children and discovers a world in which it doesn't have to be a big deal.

With two subjects who are remarkably self-aware yet both out of their depth in different ways, this beautifully balanced documentary is engaging throughout. It's full of sharp observations and full of heart.

Reviewed on: 09 Aug 2017
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A documentary about a young man preparing for surgery as his mother comes to terms with the fact that he's transgender.

Director: Shaleece Haas

Starring: Bennett Wallace

Year: 2016

Runtime: 72 minutes

Country: US

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