Desperado 2017 Feature Film | Real Boy

By Hans Pedersen, February 2017 Issue. Back to Echo’s Desperado 2017 coverage.

The tattoo inscription on Bennett Wallace’s arm – Real Boy – spells it all out for you in the opening scene.

At another point in this documentary, Bennett (Ben) and his transgender buddy, Dylan, are busy Skyping while doing their testosterone shots together. It’s a moment that not only defines the story, but also feels quintessentially contemporary.

Produced and directed by documentary filmmaker Shaleece Haas, this eye-opening, award-winning film is a thoughtfully crafted story about a 19-year-old who sheds the remnants of girlhood and transitions into manhood.

Shot in high-definition over the course of three and a half years, the footage chronicles how Bennett transforms from a self-effacing performer into a confident and talented musician. It also documents the reaction of Bennett’s mother, Suzy, to her child’s final stages of gender reassignment.

Suzy seems to want to keep her offspring frozen in time as her quirky tomboy daughter, Rachel.

“I am literally a boy with the wrong body parts,” Bennett explains to his mother Suzy in a scene where he’s 19-years-old. “I think there’s an argument to be made that you’re not,” she counters weakly. But the film shows how, over time, his somewhat intolerant mother changes her tune a bit.

In interviews, Bennett recalls how, growing up, self-mutilation and drugs were, sadly, part of the norm. The recollections are accompanied by archival Hi-8 videos that show how much Rachel identified with being a boy back then.

Bennett Wallace and his best friend Dylan Engle on their way to Santa Cruz to start college. From the film Real Boy.

The performer recalls that, after getting sober and recognizing that he wanted to start a transition, Rachel became Bennett and never looked back. The first part of the movie chronicles Bennett’s plans for gender reassignment surgery, although it appears Suzy will not be there for the procedure.

Bennett and Dylan book their top surgeries together for the same day so they can offer moral support and recover together, prior to starting college in the fall.

The movie documents their adventures, but also shares a subplot about how Bennett gets to bunk with singer Joe Stevens, his idol. Joe has several months of sobriety under his belt, but what thrills the young musician most of all is how the singer (of Coyote Grace fame) takes him under his wing, offering guidance, and the chance to collaborate.

Joe shares not only musical ideas and instruction, but also tidbits like how to tie a tie.

Over the course of the 72-minute documentary, audiences observe the hormonal, appearance and voice changes, Bennett experiences. Ultimately, he and Dylan prepare for their big procedures, but the question remains: will Bennett’s mother show up for the surgery?

In the meantime, parents of other transgender children try to offer Suzy advice and support. What’s interesting is that, despite a solid progressive upbringing (Suzy’s mother was very active in Planned Parenthood), this modern mom does not seem well-equipped to handle her child’s transition.

Still, the willingness of Bennett and his family to share their lives with the cameras demonstrates tremendous bravery and, as a result, the authenticity in Haas’ film shines through like a beacon.

This inspiring storyline about the camaraderie among transgender folks and the deep connections they share is like a steel backbone supporting the film, buttressed by an equally strong subplot about a mom trying to come to terms with her child’s truth.

Real Boy is an insightful exploration of what gender means, told with incredible honesty and skill. Real Boy screens Jan. 28 at noon.

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