In the new drama About Ray, a confused grandmother can be heard bleating about her transgender grandchild, "Why can't she just be a lesbian?" – like grandma herself, of course.
Any audience liberal enough to spend Saturday night at the multiplex watching a movie about a teen who is transitioning from female to male is going to laugh knowingly at the irony. Used to be that gay-positive was the cutting edge in open-mindedness; today, the rights of transgender people are the new frontier.
And the movies are out there, jumping on the social bandwagon and pointing the way forward. There were at least three films about the experience of transgender at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, and we're not talking The Crying Game or Boys Don't Cry, here. These are highly accessible and often gentle films designed for mainstream audiences; there's not much that is gritty – or particularly remarkable – about them.
About Ray is a small and comic family drama directed by Gaby Dellal and starring Elle Fanning as the title character, a hip Manhattan teen about to make the transition to a boy's body – if his stressed-out mom (Naomi Watts) can just get it together and confront a long-absent dad, who has to sign the parental consent form. Susan Sarandon threatens to steal the movie as that wacky lesbian grandma while Linda Emond plays her sympathetic partner.
A rambling New York brownstone inhabited by Watts, Sarandon and Emond seems like a pretty safe place to be exploring the boundaries of gender identity, but the past is even safer. The other big film in this category at TIFF this year is The Danish Girl, the fictionalized biography of Lili Elbe, the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Eddie Redmayne, who won the Oscar last year for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking, transforms himself into a woman this time: He plays the 1920s Copenhagen landscape artist Einar Wegener who discovers, after filling in for a missing female model to help out his portrait-painting wife, that his true self is actually a woman.
The film, directed by Tom Hooper of The King's Speech, is very much the perfectly restrained, beautifully filmed English costume drama: There are gorgeous twenties dresses and lovely scenes of colourful Copenhagen façades and art nouveau interiors in Paris. But, of course, the characters themselves are those notorious progressives, the Scandinavians.
The third TIFF movie is truly Scandinavian. A drama based on a popular Swedish book for young adults, Girls Lost is a film about three girls who magically transform themselves into boys at night, and it's both the most unusual and most troubling of the trio.
It focuses on Kim, one of the girls for whom the magical transformation gives a taste of the actual transition she would dearly love to make. In the magic plant whose seeds ooze an elixir that can change girl to boy – and in the remarkable double casting that produces three neat pairs of girl/boy – filmmaker Alexandra-Therese Keining has found herself a powerful cinematic metaphor for the experience of transgender.
But the daytime side of this nighttime fantasy portrays girlhood as puzzlingly passive and boyhood as irredeemably brutal. When one of the friends assures Kim there are good things about being a boy and good things about being a girl, too, you have to wonder where she got that idea.
The difficulty for all three films is how they can escape the narrative formulas and gender stereotypes so deeply embedded in cinema itself to create something authentic. In that regard, they are well-meaning films, not outstanding ones.
For example, the filmmakers need to show the violence that is often directed at transgender people, but they don't want to scare audiences. (This is perhaps most forgivable in Girls Lost, which was presumably created with the book's YA audience in mind, and actually has the darkest ending of this trio.) So, we get a bit of schoolyard bullying of the "lesbian" best friends in Girls Lost – the kind of thing that would feel perfectly at home on Degrassi Street. Meanwhile, both Lili and Ray get beaten once in the street without disastrous consequences in predictable scenes that feel like the filmmakers are ticking their way through a list of transgender challenges.
On the other hand, these films often shy away from the painful isolation that sometimes separates transgender people from family and peers, preferring to concentrate on circles of supportive characters and, if possible, throwing in a bit of heartbreakingly impossible romance for good measure.
So, we see a lot more of Ray's loving lesbian grandma than we ever see of the high school that the teen is so desperate to leave. The three friends in Girls Lost may barely have families, but at least they have each other – until one of the daytime girls makes the mistake of falling for Kim's nighttime boy in what are some of the least authentic scenes in the film.
Lili, meanwhile, has the love and support of the unfailingly loyal Gerda (played by the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander,) a real trooper who did originally think she was marrying a man. David Ebershoff, the author of the book on which the film is based, intended it as a love story. If Lili shocked conservative Copenhagen society to the point of exclusion or if she had an uncomprehending family back in the small Danish town from which she hailed, an audience need never know.
And yet, the filmmakers remain convinced that society is a pretty heavily gendered place. The most controversial performance here is bound to be that of Redmayne as Lili: Is his transformation into a woman complete enough to merit another Oscar nomination or will LBGTQ complaints that a real transgender woman should have played the role be heard? He creates a rather coy, flowery figure, a hyper feminine woman whose downcast eyes and sinuous hand movements feel like part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Meanwhile, Girls Lost portrays boys mainly as hooligans and bullies, but the girls, hanging out in the greenhouse where the magic flower grows, are passive dreamers. The most troubling scenes in that film take place in a co-ed gym class where the girls are shown to be weak and awkward until their nighttime escapades as boys give them the physical confidence to win.
The films may not be able to escape stereotype, but all three are extremely effective at revealing how painful and confusing it must be to feel that the body in which you live does not reflect your true gender. Critics, complaining what a safe film The Danish Girl is, are already noting that safe is perhaps exactly what both mainstream society and transgender people need. Similarly, if About Ray is a sometimes awkward mix of comedy and drama, you might argue that transgender issues could use a bit of levity. These films are odd creatures, breaking ground by being pedestrian, but some day audiences may remember 2015 as a turning point in their image of transgender.