The best documentary films shine a light on a corner of the world that is misunderstood and work to change viewer’s opinions. Whether they’re about a huge phenomenon in culture or the life of just a single person, they should provide insight and they should do it with passion.
Shaleece Haas’ directorial debut Real Boy is exactly that: framing the formative years of a young transgender teenager amidst the transition from Rachael to Bennett Wallace. As Shaleece follows him through hormone therapy and his ‘top’ surgery, as well as meeting similar young men including his transgender hero Joe Stevens, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for Ben and those like him through the compassion of the camera.
The film is interspersed with beautiful animation by Molly Schwartz – beautiful even when overlaid with some of Ben’s darker memories about self-harm and substance abuse – and is reminiscent of another recent BFI Flare documentary, Songs For Alexis. Both films show how important music and expression are in forming a self-confident identity.
An ongoing poignancy throughout the film is Bennett’s mother Suzy’s own transition understanding what her child is going through. She grew up in a Presbyterian church in Texas in an era where people “don’t air [their] dirty laundry”, opposed to Bennett who has access to a vocal Trans community on YouTube sharing their stories of their journeys and transitions in an age of increasing LGBT visibility (in America)…
Even when Rachael was much younger there were signs that she wasn’t comfortable as a girl (Including a particularly funny moment when she gets a suit jacket for her 5th birthday and loses her mind), and Suzy later admits that she has her suspicions from as young as 3. Her journey from opposing any surgery and being embarrassed talking with her friends to accepting Ben in his new life is a wonderful narrative…
The kind of sweet, uplifting story about a passionate young person in transition that deserves to break out of the film festivals and crossover into the mainstream. Sadly, most people who see this film will be already sympathetic to the cause, whereas if it got shown at multiplex cinemas or on NBC then it could really change hearts and minds towards misunderstood, troubled teenagers. (update: Haas has informed me that there will be a TV broadcast eventually in the USA, which is great news)
Bennett is a wonderful lead character with an inspirational resilience, and Shaleece Haas has presented him with dignity and a sense of humour that makes his passage to becoming a Real Boy so fascinating and humane.