“When I was struggling, my mom used to tell me: ‘Make a happy ending.'”
This month, thanks to BFI Flare, the brilliant coming-of-age documentary REAL BOY is making its way over from the US for an international premiere.
REAL BOY follows Bennett Wallace, a transgender teenager, as he grows up and finds his voice — as a musician, a friend, a son, and a man. Through director Shaleece Haas‘ lens we get to see Bennet’s friendship with Joe Stevens, a trans musician, and his relationship with his mother Suzy.
BFI describe REAL BOY as “raw and breathtakingly honest,” and they also recommend brining tissues along to the screenings.
But what was it like being the subject of such a powerful documentary? We caught up with Bennett to talk about the experience in front of the camera, his family, and his thoughts on trans representation in the media.
How do you feel about your story being shown over here in the UK? If I’m being honest, I don’t really know. I have no idea what to expect! I’m feeling optimistic, mostly. I’m definitely stoked to be traveling to London for the international release of REAL BOY. I’ve never been to Europe and am really excited to connect with the LGBTQ community at BFI Flare.
Are you excited to have it shared at the film festival? Or is it a little intimidating? It’s a little bit of both.
Most of the time I feel really excited about the opportunity that we have to share this story. Sometimes though, I do get a little nervous about it and I’m like, “Oh shoot… am I really ready to watch the most vulnerable moments of my transition with an audience?” I was nineteen when we started filming. It feels like such a long time ago!
That being said, I think there’s a lot of potential for this film to do good work in the world, and I hope that it does great things for our community.
When Shaleece approached you to make the film, how did you feel? Did you say yes straight away or did it take some time to think about it? When Shaleece first approached me I was thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with her. I was staying with Joe Stevens at the time, my mentor through transition, and basically Shaleece would come over and film us working on my album or going off on one of our existential tangents, and at this time nobody really knew what the finished product of this documentary was going to look like.
As my process sort of unfolded, we all became really good friends and kept the cameras rolling. When my mom became open to sharing her experience through my transition, that’s when the trajectory of this film was determined. And I think that her journey through my transition is one of the most invaluable pieces that this film has to offer.
The idea that we could potentially help other people understand, or feel understood, is what has motivated me to do it the entire time.
What were the first few days of filming like? Was it a surreal experience? Or was it easy to get into? It felt awkward having cameras around initially. After a while I just learned to pretend that the cameras weren’t there and eventually it became really easy to open up in front of them.
Is it nice that, by sharing your story, you might help out other people in the trans community, or maybe educate people who know little about it? That’s the entire purpose of this film. The idea that we could potentially help other people understand, or feel understood, is what has motivated me to do it the entire time.
How did your mom cope with the filming? Ohhh, gosh. Umm, she’s still coping. [laughs]
Honestly, I think that meeting Joe and Shaleece changed her relationship with my transition, and really helped her to accept the documentary. As time went on she recognised that my story… That our story was in good hands.
How did you meet Joe? He seems awesome! He is awesome! I met Joe at a young people’s sobriety convention when I was eighteen. I was speaking on a panel about transitioning in sobriety and he was sitting in the audience. We ended up hanging out for the rest of the weekend and he graciously answered every single question I had about his experience through transition. He’s been like a brother to me ever since.
From the clips we’ve seen he sounds like a great mentor, that kind of support must be important when you’re transitioning? I don’t even have words to describe the impact that Joe has had on my transition. His support and guidance changed the trajectory of my life. Having someone celebrate the development of my identity instead of trying to shame me into submission allowed me to develop a healthy understanding of who I am. Having him acknowledge my own experience as valid was crucial in developing the confidence that I needed to assert it for myself.
What are your plans for the future? What’s the next step for you? I just got this awesome little motorhome and I’m on a mission to see every national park in the continental United States, and then Alaska this summer. I’ve recently released my second album, called Worth The Weight and I’m bringing that music and message with me everywhere I go. Basically, my plan is to keep pursuing my happiness and making art inspired by the journey as I go.
How do you feel about trans representation in the media at the moment? Obviously we’ve got great individuals like Laverne Cox and Aydian Dowling, but do you think that trans people are still misunderstood or underrepresented? This is a difficult question for me to answer, because it really depends on what kind of media we’re talking about. Corporate branded media outlets are trying to sell our stories, not tell our stories. The way we are collectively portrayed in the mainstream media feels reductive. I don’t want to be reduced to my body when we talk about my experience. There’s something a lot bigger happening here, and when the media sensationalises our experiences, it can feel trivialising.
I don’t watch TV anymore because I think that so many important social and environmental issues are either underrepresented or completely ignored in mainstream media. Trans inclusion isn’t going to fix how broken the mainstream media really is. I definitely admire Laverne Cox and Aydian Dowling for their positive media presence, and I also think that the internet is a better place to look for information because the diversity of our experiences is left out of the mainstream media’s portrayal of our identities.
Props to all the people working hard in different ways to help make the world a more informed and compassionate place.
What advice would you give to anyone watching the film who might be experiencing the same or similar things? When I was struggling, my mom used to tell me: “Make a happy ending.” Please don’t let other people define the value of your worth. Your story is important. Everybody has a purpose. Find a community that supports you, and take care of each other. Have patience for the people that you love, but don’t compromise who you are for them. Eventually, you’ll look back at everything, and it will all start to make sense.
Oh, and hold on tight… Because it’s not an easy path, but it is definitely worth the weight.
Check out Bennet’s new album Worth The Weight and his travel blog at gentlebenmusic.com
You can buy tickets to see REAL BOY at BFI Flare on March 21 and and March 22 via bfi.org.uk/flare – hurry though, tickets are going fast.