If you were in Pasadena in the 1990s, you might feel a shock of recognition while watching the PBS Independent Lens award-winning documentary “Real Boy.” You might know this family. “Real Boy” which made its national broadcast premiere on Monday, June 19 on PBS (check local listings) is about Bennett, who was raised in Pasadena and whose mother, Suzy still resides in the area.
When we first meet Bennett Wallace, he is a she: a young girl named Rachel. Shaleece Haas, a self-proclaimed “queer documentary filmmaker” based in Los Angeles, begins her movie with clips made by the subject on Feb. 7, 1999. This is an intact family of mother, father and two kids. Rachel introduces herself, but just looking at the short-haired kid, you can’t immediately tell the person is a girl.
We’ll later see the same person in July at age 19, but now called Bennett. The journey from Rachel to Bennett is one of a search for identity and acceptance with some alternative musical interludes. While Bennett seems to be a sensible lady-turning-into-a-lad, he clearly wasn’t always that way. Bennett is a former addict and a cutter.
Bennett explains, “I am literally a boy with the wrong body parts.” Yet this view isn’t readily accepted by his family. By the time Bennett is an adult, his parents have divorced. The documentary focuses mostly on his mother, Suzy, whose response is, “We all have that feeling that I am in the wrong body. I should be in Charlize Theron’s body.”
While his mother fights memories of her Rachel, Bennett finds comfort online. Haas shows a variety of people on YouTube who feel they are in the a body of the wrong gender. The message is clear: Rachel/Bennett is not alone. That’s especially comforting when Bennett finds, “My sister isn’t talking to me. And my dad. It gets hard when they don’t want to answer your phone calls or they don’t want to see you.” His best friend, Dylan Engle, is also going
Bennett also finds inspiration for the future in Joe Stevens. Stevens is a former addict and transgender. Bennett is an aspiring singer/songwriter with a voice and appeal on the edge of country, folksy in a post-1960s way. Stevens is a third-generation professional musician according to his website. Stevens is also a former addict, transgender and a musician, an unexpected trifecta that Bennett feels deeply. Originally from Sacramento, during Bennett’s transition, Stevens is still performing with his first band, Coyote Grace (2006-2012). One particular concert helps raise funds for Bennett.
Bennett and Dylan get their top surgery together. Dylan’s mom is more supportive and at first Bennett doesn’t even want his mother there. Dylan’s mom helps Suzy become more supportive. Her emotional transformation moves forward her daughter transitions into a son.
For Pasadenans, this is a bit of more than a slight curiosity. Suzy looks so familiar to me. Perhaps I passed her or Rachel or Bennett on the streets of Pasadena or waited in line in front or behind. Even without adding transgender issues into the mix, we humans continue to wrestle with the concept of what is a real man or a real boy in a way that sometimes plunges into the deep recesses of homophobia. Now “Real Boy” asks us to consider gender as more than biological and that tom boys may indeed be girls who should be boys. Haas provides us with the window into the life of one individual who transitions into adulthood, choosing to be a boy and believes he is as real a boy as the ones who didn’t have a previous feminine identity.