Last night, Independent Lens’ “Real Boy” aired for the first time on PBS. It was great! If you missed it, it will be on again in most PBS markets soon. It’s the true story of a transgender youth and they did the unthinkable in film lately, they cast an actual transgender teen to tell his own story. They did not cast a cis actor. There was no edict to make sure he looked “trans enough”. We were given the reality and the reality is beautiful even when it is hard to watch.
The documentary follows Ben (and his mother). Ben is a young transgender teen who is facing many hurdles. Addiction, cutting, family acceptance, acceptance of self, saving up money for his own hormones and surgery, and so much more. Like any teenager he has his own passions and interests. In his case it is music. There is the unique worry that the testosterone will affect his ability to sing as his voice rapidly changes.
I am facing a bit of a dilemma here. I’ve never written a movie review before and I’ve a new respect how Roger Ebert did it. He could tell you about a movie without giving things away that could spoil the experience. It is my hope that each of you sees the movie and discovers Ben, his family, and his beautiful friends.
As a parent of a trans teen, there were many things I saw that I related to. The support and the closeness of the trans teen community that happens online is endearing and lovely to watch. It is the online experience with other trans youth where teens realize they are not alone and they develop beautiful and strong friendships with the other children. These friendships often gets them through the harder roads they face. I also really appreciated the family dynamic. There is often parental resistance that goes through it’s own evolution towards acceptance and this documentary unflinchingly faces the parental experience and the affect it has on the child.
The filmmakers lead you through a story without telling you what to think or how to feel. This allows you to have your thoughts and your feelings on your terms. You will have them and they will be powerful. In the process of this movie I fell in love with Ben, his musical mentor, and his friends. I felt anger towards his family and that transitioned to empathy and compassion and sometimes swung back to anger.
In recent blogs I have complained how the entertainment industry has been hiring cis people to tell the transgender story. I even touched on it when I spoke about allies who are not really allies. I realize a documentary like this one or “I Am Jazz” are not works of fiction. But there are some things in “Real Boy” that make a case for the importance of what I am speaking of. “Real Boy” tells a story, the only difference is the story is documented and edited with care as opposed to written. It has quality direction, cinematography, editing, and soundtrack to help tell the story. Most importantly, every transgender person shown in the film is transgender and they tell their story with authenticity, quality, beauty, and you are drawn to them.
I hope that Hollywood watches “Real Boy” and realizes that good stories about transgender people can be told by hiring transgender people. This movie helps viewers understand and connect with a transgender teen. If we are ever going to have more acceptance in this world, we need that connection to happen. Viewers need to see transgender people as something other than a man in a dress or a woman in a suit. That is what Hollywood gives us right now. I am grateful that Independent Lens and PBS gave us something better.
“Real Boy” is an important film. It’s also real good. I hope you see it. If you do, I know you will be moved.
For the next two weeks you can see “Real Boy” online at www.pbs.org