The journey a mother goes through when her child is transitioning is often left untold. Real Boy, which premieres tonight through Independent Lens on PBS, follows the intimate transformation of two people: a trans teen named Bennett who tries to navigate life and sobriety while changing his gender identity, and his mother, Suzy, who is trying to accept that her daughter is now her son.
Producer/director Shaleece Haas filmed the documentary over the course of four years. Through interviews and old home movies, she lets viewers gain access into a mother and her child, whose love is compromised by misunderstanding. The film is poignant, raw, and incredibly heartfelt -- a testament to the great filmmaking.
Real Boy follows Bennett as he tells the story of what life was like in the early years of adolescence, when drug abuse, cutting, and near-fatal incidents masked a struggle he couldn't find words for, until he found other teens online dealing with similar issues. Viewers also get to see the aspiring musician build a mentoring relationship with his idol, Joe Stevens, the trans front man of the band Coyote Grace. Stevens takes Bennett under his wing to help him to find peace on a journey Stevens has taken himself.
"As a queer woman, I've always been interested in the ways that we in the LGBTQ community form chosen families," Haas says. "Although Bennett and Joe hadn't known each other long, there was a connection between them that compelled me. Later, when I met Bennett's mom and saw the challenges she and Bennett had in understanding each other, I knew the film would grow to be about the intersections between given and chosen family and the places we seek support and validation."
Photo: Suzy with her son Bennett in the hospital after his top surgery. Credit: Shaleece Haas.
Suzy experiences her own transition into a new kind of motherhood, ultimately discovering love is the one essential element to a mother-child relationship. Together, in the first four years of Bennett's transition, we see them getting to know each other for the first time.
"When I first spent time with Bennett and Suzy together, I could see that they loved each other very much, but that they struggled to hear and understand each other," Haas says. "There was so much hurt and confusion preventing them from connecting and showing that love. I've been in Bennett's shoes of wanting someone in my family to love me and support me unconditionally, but I've also been in Suzy's position of trying to figure out how to love and support someone when I don't really understand them, or perhaps disagree with their choices. Even when she didn't know the best way to show up for Bennett, Suzy was still invested in their relationship. Sadly, not everyone has that with their families."
When Haas was shown Bennett (and Joe)'s old photos, she says she noticed their true gender expression was visible early on, even if those closest couldn't yet understand what it all meant.
One of the most poignant moments of the film is when Bennett's dad is filming him on his fifth birthday. Behind the camera, he asks, "Do you want to open the present?" Bennett jumps off the couch and pulls something out of a gift bag. "What I always, always wanted," he squealed. "A suit jacket!"
At the time Real Boy was first being produced in 2012, Haas points out, transgender rights and visibility were not yet part of the mainstream conversation. Time magazine hadn't yet proclaimed the "Transgender Tipping Point." Caitlyn Jenner hadn't yet emerged, and few people in the mainstream thought to use "they" as a non-binary singular pronoun.
"I didn't set out to make a film that focused narrowly on Bennett's identity as a trans person or on his physical transition," she says. "I wanted to make a film about relationships -- messy complicated relationships -- and the ways those relationships are impacted by our process of self-discovery. There's no denying that Real Boy deals with themes of transgender identity, but ultimately the film explores the ways that search for identity isn't just personal, but also involves the people closest to us."