- Courtesy Real Boy
- Bennett Wallace's final song of the film, written for his mother, inspires immediate tears.
'Our search for identity as individuals isn't just personal," says Shaleece Haas, director of the 2016 documentary Real Boy. "It impacts people we love; it impacts the people who love us... So while we think of identity development as personal, I think it's also very social."
Haas raises an interesting point in the context of this film, and in the context of queer identity. Real Boy struck me not just as a story about a young man's journey through transition, but a story about family — both the family we're born into and the family we create, and how we as individuals exist within those separate spheres.
LGBTQ people have a long history of creating our own families. The importance society places on blood relations can ring hollow for queer kids who have been kicked out of their homes, or queer adults who have never felt safe or comfortable coming out to their parents in spite of living openly otherwise. The media place so much importance on coming out, but so often the process is presented in one of two ways: Either the person faces violent rejection, or immediate, tearful acceptance.
For most of us, the actual outcome of our coming out falls somewhere between those two extremes and unfolds gradually, with a lot of mistakes, but without any intentional malice. Honestly, it's refreshing to see a realistic story portrayed in Real Boy, and to see how its subject, 19-year-old Bennett Wallace, copes with the ongoing struggle to navigate manhood (both in the context of transition, and in the context of growing up) in the face of a family that simply doesn't understand.
Haas says that regardless of sexuality or gender identity, we can all relate to both sides of this familial struggle, "being in Bennett's position of wanting love and support and wanting the people who are closest to us to show up for us. And then on Suzy's end [Suzy Reinke, Wallace's mom], trying to figure out how [to do] that if I don't understand or I don't agree or there's something about this that makes me uncomfortable."
Reinke makes a lot of mistakes in the beginning of the film, checking every box on the list of "things not to say to your transgender child." She mourns the loss of "Rachel," this daughter she thought she had, a construct tied to Wallace's name and body. For Reinke to grieve for her "daughter" while her son stands in front of her suggests, intentionally or not, that his value to her as a person relies on his gender.
It becomes clear there is much more to Wallace for a mother to be proud of. After overcoming drug addiction, he records music with his mentor (trans folk singer Joe Stevens), goes to college, gets a job and moves into his first apartment, but Reinke's focus isn't on his accomplishments. It's on this decision he makes — to undergo top surgery — and how that makes her feel.
But Wallace finds comfort in his queer friends and their families as his mother takes her time to work through her own struggles. Encouragingly, she does work through them.
Haas says: "The person who goes through the greatest transformation isn't Bennett, it's Bennett's mom, and her journey not only of acceptance, but figuring out how to show her love and support for her child, even when she doesn't really understand it."
And while that is more than many queer children receive, it's still a little too late. What parents of trans or otherwise queer children may not understand is that their initial response to a child's coming out — that knee-jerk reaction — can have lasting and damaging effects. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a support network outside their born family, to have a community to see them through the most difficult period of their life while their parents come around.
In the film, the mother of Wallace's best friend (who is also trans) says to Reinke, "There's so many other people in this world who would love to bring them down. We just have to make sure we're not any of those people."
That's the baseline, and I hope someday all parents meet it. But it's not just a matter of not "bringing people down," it's also a matter of lifting them up.
Haas wants to be sure audiences don't take Real Boy as a one-size-fits-all portrayal of transness, but rather as a snapshot of one man's experience. "It's about relationships," she says, "It's not an issue film where people are being educated about a topic. It really is just a story about Bennett and the people closest to him in his life, his given and chosen families."
But it is real, and that is the film's greatest value.