Elle Fanning stars as a 16-year-old transgender boy named Ray, whom you really want to root for in 3 Generations. That’s why it’s such a bummer that the movie doesn’t jell. Even the opening scene, featuring Ray’s mother (Naomi Watts) and grandmother (Susan Sarandon) joining Ray for a gender-reassignment consultation, is speckled with inorganic dialogue like “It’s been hard on her…him…us.”
But pronouns are the least of this family’s problems. Nine out of 10 scenes in the film involve the characters hurling insults at each other while seeming miserable in their fantastic Manhattan brownstone. Some of the screaming fights yield challenging points of conflict: Sarandon’s character, for example, thinks it’s antifeminist that “my granddaughter wants to be a grandson.” But the movie’s arrhythmic plot is replete with clumsy, half-started threads, awkward lurches at slapstick comedy, and a lengthy detour into the bourgeois banality of Ray’s search for his birth father, who needs to sign off on the reassignment surgery.
Director Gaby Dellal (On a Clear Day) admirably avoids the trap in which transgender characters are portrayed as victims, but she way overcranks the “movie” neuroses of her three characters, muffling any human spark. Watts is one of the most authentic emotional performers of the past two decades; Fanning was brilliant as a tempest-tossed teen in 20th Century Women; Sarandon is so vital on screen that she’s only ever floundered when playing weak. Each deserved a movie where — per this one’s message — they could be their true selves. C