Real Boy MQFF doco explores one family's emotional journey through transition
The award winning documentary Real Boy: A Son’s Transition. A Mom’s Transformation is a must see at this year’s Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Rachel Cook takes a look at the film that’s hoping to change America.
Real Boy: A Son’s Transition. A Mom’s Transformation produced and directed by Shaleece Haas is one of the standout documentaries at this year’s Melbourne Queer Film Festival.
The much acclaimed film sees Haas follow Bennett (Ben) Wallace from the age of 19 when he has just begun hormone therapy through to the final scene where Ben is now 22 years old.
While Real Boy’s trajectory is not unlike other documentaries about transmen and transitioning, Haas seemingly aware of this, has instead crafted a stunning insight into the emotional journey of not just Ben’s transitioning but the transformation of those around him – especially his mother, Suzy.
In fact, Haas breaks all the rules of documentary filmmaking and somehow, accompanied by the deft hand of editor Andrew Gersh, manages to fit into seventy-two minutes the vastly complex stories of not just Ben and his mother, but also Ben’s mentor, trans musician Joe Stevens as well.
The film has been praised by critics and viewers alike including the talented trans comedian and actor Ian Harvie who said of the film:
“I am a huge fan of Real Boy…and I can’t say enough about this documentary.
“I watched this film and kept saying that’s me, that’s me. It made me realise that films like these…what’s important about them is that other people out there watching will have the opportunity to say that’s me…and when you get to see yourself in film or art then you feel like you exist and if you feel like you exist then you also probably feel like things are possible.”
(Ben playing the guiter for his mother, Suzy, in Real Boy)
Real Boy begins with six-year-old Ben (known as Rachael then) making a home movie complete with mum, dad, sister and the family dog. It’s a classic ‘all American family’ scene - dad is making hamburgers and telling bad dad jokes and mum is smiling and laughing. It’s a family portrait that would make Donald Trump proud. At the end of the video Rachael says “and I’m Rachael, the one who made the video about my family. Next time join me for another video. I can’t think of what I’m going to do next though.”
On the other hand, because of the film’s premise we know what is going to happen next. We already know the six-year-old we are watching is trans and that we will more than likely see a journey through medical treatment/s and for those of us who have seen films about transitioning before we might also think we are somewhat prepared for the emotional arc. However, two factors take Real Boy to another level and that’s Ben himself who is beyond his years in maturity and insight and Haas’s ability to get to the heart of the matter quickly without losing any nuance.
We see Ben trying to explain to his mother that he is trans and is determined to have top surgery. He says:
“I am literally a boy with the wrong body parts”.
Hi mother, Suzy, responds:
“I just think there is the argument that you’re not.”
The starting place for Suzy is not promising but by the film’s title we know something is going to change. It is Haas’s documenting of that change that is one of the most insightful elements of the film and what makes Real Boy one of the most important documentaries in this genre.
We also meet Ben’s mentor, Joe Stevens, who is a successful trans musician who is battling his own demons of addiction. When we first meet Joe he is nine months sober and determined to guide Ben through his journey. Joe sees himself in Ben, as he says, “we are both addicts, we are both trans and musicians…the three things that define me most.”
We meet Ben’s new friend Dylan who is also transitioning and his family. Dylan’s mother, Julie, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Suzy when it comes to supporting her son and ultimately she delivers the message of the film.
While there are numerous stories in Real Boy one of the most beautiful aspects to witness is the two mothers’ journeys. In one particularly poignant scene where they are walking through the hospital carpark while their sons are recovering from top surgery Julie says to Suzy:
“We don’t have to necessarily understand it completely and fully, we just have to love them and support them through it, that’s all you can do. There are so many other people in this world that would love to bring them down, we just have to make sure we are not any of those people.”
Sometimes you can doubt the adage that film has the power to change its audience? And while for queer audiences Real Boy is a film of hope there is no doubting the power this film could haves if it gets the chance to shine outside of LGBTIQ film festivals.
The plan is that this film will be shown in schools across the United States. And in this time where transgender rights in Donald Trump’s America are in a precarious state, we can only hope a film like this, a film which could actually make a change will get the exposure it needs.
‘Real Boy. A Son’s Transition. A Mom’s Transformation’ will be showing at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, Saturday March 18, 4.15pm, mqff.com.au
(Top image -Ben Wallace and Joe Stevens in Real Boy.)
Watch the trailer for Real Boy here: