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.
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.
Director offers behind-the-scenes insight on Real Boy
Cameras are skilled at discerning truth, and when subjects of a documentary open up their lives to a filmmaker, the result can be incredible.
One such example is Real Boy, a documentary that chronicles a young transgender musician’s journey into adulthood as he works to make his body match his mind, heart and soul through hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and gender reassignment surgery from female to male, despite the lack of support from his mother.
Echo Magazine caught up with the film’s director, Shaleece Haas, who is also an instructor at University of California Berkeley’s Advanced Media Institute, to chat about how she befriended the family and began documenting Bennett Wallace’s journey to share with audiences.
Echo: How did you first meet Bennett and decide to make a film about his transition?
Haas: I first met Bennett through Joe [Stevens] when I went to see Joe in concert, and Bennett was there opening for him. They had met at a sober conference for young people and had developed a friendship, and I was really moved by their relationship/mentorship. I was struck by the music and by the relationship that he and Joe had, and I asked if I could interview him on camera and we started to make the film.
Echo: Can you talk a little about the process of getting Suzy on camera and the decision to include her story in the documentary as well?
Haas: When I first met Suzy, she wasn’t terribly excited about being in a film. Things were really hard between her and Bennett, but over time we developed a relationship. I also promised her that I was going to stick around long enough to see her and Bennett though this really difficult period in their relationship, because I could see even then they had a lot of love for each other, even though at times it was difficult for them to express it to one another.
But I had a really strong sense that they were going to come out on the other end. I was interested in sticking around ‘til that happened. To her credit, she allowed me to come back again and again, and now she loves the film and has said on multiple occasions the process of being in the film, and being asked about her feelings over time, is one of the things that helped her get to that place of acceptance a little bit faster.
Echo: Were there challenges to documenting such a personal story as Bennett’s transition?
Haas: Certainly. I had to balance my role as filmmaker and my role as friend in a lot of places. I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility to these people who had opened up – some of them, the most intimate parts of their lives – to me and my camera. And so I spent a lot of time thinking about how to honor their experience, tell the story, but really take a lot of care with it.
And it was a pretty emotional process for me, too. There were definitely moments I’d be there filming with Bennett and his mom and they would fight, and I would go home and feel really drained emotionally for a period of time, because I felt like I’d had a fight with my own mother. And I think in some ways, as a filmmaker, my intimacy and my close relations with the people in the film, is part of what brings audiences closer.
Echo: What was it like shooting over the course of three and a half years, revisiting the family again and again?
Haas: We all got to know each other pretty well. We spent a lot of time together off camera as well as on camera. When you meet Bennett he’s 19, and the film follows him until he’s 23. It’s not just his transition, as Bennett goes from adolescence to young adulthood, [and] as his mother makes her own journey to acceptance of her son, but all of the relationships in the film, they evolved in ways we couldn’t necessarily predict …
Part of the process is being present to all of that and figuring out how to tell a story in only 72 minutes, out of four years of someone’s life, while still being as true to what I experienced of that as possible … Being able to witness the way everyone changed over such a long period of time is part of the richness of the film.
Echo: Bennett is so talented on the acoustic guitar, and we watch his transformation as an artist. Can you talk about the role that music plays in your documentary?
Haas: The initial idea of the film came from a seed of an idea, a question about the process of finding one’s voice through transition and music at the same time. And so the piece about finding your voice through music was always really important. Joe was already an accomplished musician and I wanted to use his music in the film. And Joe serves as a mentor to Ben not only in his personal life, but professionally as a musician. It was really gratifying to watch Bennett grow into his own. He’s such a confident musician now … He’s been playing with the film, touring with the film, and people love his music and love him. I’m proud to see his growth as a musician and a performer.
Echo: Did you have a favorite moment among the subjects of your documentary?
Haas: I don’t know if I did. I mean, there are thousands of little moments. Certainly I love the scenes a lot of the scenes with Bennett and Dylan because they’re hilarious. They make me laugh. I’ve seen this film in all of its generations and versions hundreds of times, and I still laugh at (those) moments. So I think the humor and, at times, the comic relief that Bennett and Dylan provide gives me a lot of joy.