A curious thing tends to happen when a child transitions from one gender to another: The parent mourns the loss of someone who has never been more alive.
The documentary Real Boy, which makes its broadcast premiere Monday night on PBS, captures this years-long and often painful process with a degree of sensitivity that has never been seen before.
The child in this case is Bennet Wallace, a young transgender man and an emerging singer-songwriter who was 19 years old at the start of filming in 2012. The parent is his mom, Suzy, who initially had trouble accepting her son as, well, her son.
An early moment in the film shows Bennett explaining to his mom that he is “literally a boy with the wrong body parts” to which a skeptical Suzy responds, “I just think there is the argument of: You’re not.”
The tense back-and-forth continues with Suzy ultimately asking, “What’s so wrong with the opinion of you are who you are and you get what you get?”
“Is that why you got plastic surgery?” a visibly angry Bennett snaps back.
It’s a conversation so messy but necessary, so filled with awkward silences and hurt feelings, that it can only be true. In fact, it’s a wonder that such an unvarnished moment was even caught on film in the first place.
“Well, I was there for that moment and I was also there for three days before and three days after when nothing much was happening,” queer documentary filmmaker Shaleece Haas explained to The Daily Beast. “So part of it was that I was just there all the time.”
Haas first met Bennett Wallace while filming a concert at the house of singer-songwriter Joe Stevens. Both Bennett and Joe were transgender men, both of them were addicts in recovery who had met and befriended each other at a sober conference, and both shared a mutual love of indie folk music. Initially interested in exploring their friendship, Haas changed course when she saw how pained Bennett’s relationship was with his mom.
“Because I was outside their relationship and had a little bit of distance from it, I could also see that they were going to be OK eventually, that she hadn’t outright cut her child off but that she was really struggling,” Haas recalled.
Bennett let Haas into his life—“I ultimately just felt like I could trust her,” he told The Daily Beast, citing the fact that Haas is queer herself—and that’s exactly where the filmmaker stayed, camera rolling, for years. Over the course of the film, Bennett moves out of the house, undergoes “top surgery” to masculinize his chest, and comes into his own as a performer.
But his relationships evolve, too: his mentor Joe needs some rescuing of his own when he relapses, and his mom Suzy needs help realizing that she is not losing a daughter but gaining a much-happier son.
Transgender children and their parents have been featured in documentaries before—but often those films are only able to capture the best end result positive: a mutually supportive relationship. After all, what kind of unsupportive parent would agree to be filmed for a documentary that embraced their child’s gender? Wouldn’t they be “the bad guy”?
In that sense, Real Boy provides a rare window into a tumultuous relationship that seems—as Haas could sense—destined for a positive resolution but still has a ways to go.
Haas told The Daily Beast that “it took some time to develop the kind of relationship with Suzy that allowed her to be comfortable enough with me.” The filmmaker had to make sure that Suzy knew that the documentary wouldn’t “demonize her,” that Haas wasn’t “out to get her.” And she had to make both Suzy and Bennett aware that what the film showed of their parent-child relationship wouldn’t always be pleasant.
“That was a pretty delicate negotiation for everyone,” Haas recalled. “I told them early on [that] if you’re interested in doing this with me, just know that there may be times when I’m going to ask if I can be there even if everything’s not perfect. I’m not interested in only seeing the best of everybody all the time because nobody could relate to that. We all have messy parts.”
One of the sorest topics in their relationship at the start of Real Boy is the fact that Bennett has saved up his own money to undergo top surgery—a decision that Suzy refuses to support financially. In a scene showing Bennett discussing his travel plans for surgery with his mom, Suzy asks him, “So you don’t want me there?”
Bennett smirks, walks away, and says, “I never said that. You had no interest in participating…” “No, that’s not what I said,” says Suzy. “I said as far as financial…”
And again, more awkward silence and misunderstanding.
“The film is really hard for both of us to watch,” Bennett told The Daily Beast. “My mom—I know she feels bad for having ever been ignorant. And I feel bad for not having been as patient as I could have been.”
But the film itself also accelerated Bennett and Suzy’s healing process. Haas’ presence during their conversations with each other, and her constant requests for interviews—at first a little unnerving for Suzy—became excuses for both mother and child to engage in more self-reflection than they otherwise would have.
“I think it was very helpful,” Bennett told The Daily Beast, recalling that “there were so many interviews that didn’t make it in the film where I was just sitting with [Haas], processing.”
In the same way, Haas recalled to The Daily Beast that the filmmaking experience “may have sped up [Suzy’s] process a little bit.” During discussions at screenings of the documentary, Haas said, Suzy has expressed that “because I kept coming back to her, putting a microphone in her face, and saying, ‘Tell me how you feel,’” she was “forced to talk about it and forced to process it.”
For Haas, a queer cisgender woman who comes from a community of transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people, the physical aspects of Bennett’s transition weren’t interesting to her—his relationships were.
“It wasn’t new or fascinating to me,” Haas told The Daily Beast of the physical milestones in the film, like top surgery and testosterone injections. “This was never going to be a story about trans identity. This was a story that included trans people about growing up, about family, about finding family.”
As Real Boy continues, Bennett does find family, both among literal family like Suzy and close friends who might as well be family like Joe. Hardened hearts start to soften. Conversations grow more compassionate. Both mother and son begin going out of their way to make the other feel appreciated and recognized.
“My mom and I are so close [now],” Bennett told The Daily Beast. “And I just love her so much and have so much respect for her. I might be getting emotional because we’re about to do the broadcast, but I’m really proud of her.”
Five years ago, the young man decided to let Haas explore his life and now—with Real Boy being seen by more people than he had ever anticipated—he hopes that the film can serve as a model for other parents and children in transition together.
“I hope that my mom and my journey can be an example for people who are at the beginning of their transition,” he said. “Family really can get you through anything—and if that’s your given family or your chosen family, it doesn’t really matter. Just keep people who love you close to you.”
Real Boy airs Monday, June 19, at 10 PM on PBS