I feel bad sh*tting on About Ray, but…I’m going to sh*t on it—it’s not very good. Starring Elle Fanning as transgender teen Ray and directed by Gaby Dellal (Looking), About Ray is more about everyone else talking about Ray than Ray himself. It’s a standard wacky family coming of age story, except the quirk is that Ray is transitioning from female to male, which sends his flighty mom into a panic as he needs both parents signatures before beginning the medical process of transitioning, and they haven’t seen or heard from Ray’s dad in a decade because of something his mother did. Naomi Watts stars as Ray’s mother, Maggie, and an alternate title of the film could have been About Maggie, because it’s really her story, and not Ray’s, that drives the film.
This is the biggest problem in the film - that despite the title, it isn’t really about Ray. Fanning is solid as Ray, but isn’t really given much to do except mope and “make beats”. (Why does every filmmaker suddenly assume that every teenager is producing music on their MacBook? This is like the new “working on a car” cliché.) Ray does have one spectacular breakdown scene, which is actually kind of startling because it’s more emotion than we’ve seen from Ray in the entire movie. On the one hand, there’s a clear effort to treat transitioning as unexceptionally as possible, but on the other hand, Dellal and the script by Nikole Beckwith underplay Ray’s reality to the point that it takes away from the dramatic heft of the movie. Ray’s inner struggle is reduced to a series of clichés being checked off a list, and all of it passes by very quickly because we’re always in a rush to get back to the ongoing saga of Maggie And Her Bad Life Choices.
Watts is good as Maggie, but she’s a deeply annoying character. About Ray is really all about Maggie’s dating drama as she confronts her past with Ray’s father, Craig. Craig’s got a new life in the suburbs with a new family, which leaves Ray justifiably angry at him, and Maggie doesn’t want to see him or his brother, Matthew, and yes, that plays out exactly like you think it will. (Sidebar: Sam Trammell plays Matthew and he is F*CKING HOT.) Every time the movie cuts to Maggie and her personal problems outside of Ray, you wonder why we’re supposed to care who Maggie is f*cking when her son is undergoing emotional upheaval after emotional upheaval. Case in point: When Maggie goes to confront Craig to get him to sign the paperwork for Ray’s procedure, she sees Craig and Matthew together. Rather than speak to either of them, she lays her seat back and tries to drive away without either of them seeing her in a wacky comedy scene that feels completely out of place.
There is so much annoying sh*t like that in About Ray. Some of it is general movie annoying sh*t, like the family living in the East Village of New York, even though no one has a discernible job (movies, stop doing this. Everyone knows Manhattan is crazy expensive so if characters live there without visible means of support we spend all our time wondering how). And some of it specific annoying sh*t, like Maggie lying on floors when she’s upset. She’s so quirky! Susan Sarandon and Linda Emond are also along for the ride as the Comedy Lesbian Grandmothers, and are as obnoxious as you think they are. It’s incredibly cliché—you can see every beat and development coming because you have seen this movie a thousand times before, despite the topical relevancy of transgender issues. If anything, About Ray is doubly annoying because it takes a perspective that should be insightful and instead renders it irritating with clichés and who-gives-a-sh*t adult romantic drama.