“I am literally a boy with the wrong body parts”, says protagonist Bennett at some point, trying exasperatedly to explain to his mother why he can’t go on being Rachel anymore. The first feature by director Shaleece Haas, Real Boy is a sweet portrait of a transgender boy and his path towards self-acceptance and adulthood.
Using plenty of old footage of Ben as a young tomboy girl, Real Boy traces Ben’s journey from the realization he was different, his troubled teenager years and his drug addiction, to his recovery, finding solace in music and the Youtube community, and deciding to become his real self. We are also shown his good friends Joe Stevens (a transgender singer with a very similar life story) and Dylan (the best friend with an incredibly supportive family, who Skypes Ben for them both to take their testosterone injections at the same time), his tricky relationship with his dad and sister, and the acceptance from his mother, a liberal educated divorced mother who has trouble understanding what her son is going through. During 4 years, we see Ben go from boyish girl to full male, with a deep voice and a (still) elusive beard that shyly starts making an appearance in the last part of the film.
What makes this documentary so much more than a portrait on someone going through a situation very few of us can directly relate, is the way it makes us feel so close to its protagonist. It’s not about his upcoming top surgery, or the specificities of being transgender. There is that, but director Shaleece Haas also gives us the troubled teenager finding his voice, the power of friendships, the family tensions, in short, a typical coming of age story of someone that happens to be transgender – and its simplicity and matter of fact nature (avoiding unnecessary shock value, or freak show moments) makes it incredibly powerful.
Beautifully shot and edited, with animated interludes that mesh with Ben’s original music (a delight for the indie rock lover out there), Real Boy is a heartfelt watch, with tear inducing moments as Ben’s mother learns how best to support him in his own personal journey, and Ben and Dylan’s first Thanksgiving dinner in their new house. It may not have the punch in the stomach effect that we seem to require from documentaries to hail them great, but as an intimate, subtle film, you won’t regret giving it a check.
Real Boy will be available on DVD and VOD from 24th April 2017.