Elle Fanning stars in "About Ray."

(WOMENSENEWS)–About Ray” concerns Ramona (Elle Fanning), who at age 17 wants to make a biological gender transition to officially become Ray. Parental consent is required. Ray’s single mom (Naomi Watts) and lesbian grandmother (Susan Sarandon) both agree. But the biological father, who played no role in raising Ray, must also sign the consent slip. That sets off this coming-of-age family drama about sexual identity and self-realization. Director Gaby Dellal, who also co-wrote with Nikole Beckwith, infuses the emotionally-charged film with humor. It’s amusing when grandma asks why Ray can’t just be a lesbian. But the answer to her question is what the film’s all about. Ray wants and needs to change gender, and without that clearly presented struggle and unstoppable commitment, there would be no movie. Performances by Fanning, Watts and Sarandon are superb. A must-see.

The New Girlfriend,” French filmmaker Francois Ozon’s cinematic adaptation of crime writer Ruth Rendell’s story, is another engaging – and wickedly humorous — exploration of gender identity. It’s a richly rewarding story about sexually ambiguous relationships formed through unusual encounters. Claire (Anais Demoustier) and Laura (Isild Le Besco), dedicated friends since childhood, have led seemingly similar contentedly-married lives. When Laura dies soon after childbirth, Claire steps in to care for the newborn and discovers Laura’s now widower husband to be a closeted transvestite known around town as Virginia. Claire becomes – surprise, surprise – attracted to Virginia. Will she be able to repress her feelings? How will this impact her marriage? No spoilers! Suffice it to say that things get weird and you can trust that Ozon’s masterfully playful approach to this quirky relationship thriller is, as always, terrific. Another must-see.

Sicario,” which is Mexican crime slang for “hitman,” is an action thriller set in the violent world of drug trafficking along the U.S.-Mexican border in Arizona. FBI agent Kate Macy (Emily Blunt) finds corpses in a house owned by a Sonoran drug kingpin. She is assigned to team up with a CIA agent (Josh Brolin) and a mysterious mercenary (Benicio del Toro) to track the trafficker to Juarez to identify and kill his boss. There are lots of twists and some unanswered questions in this action-packed plot. Galvanizing performances by Blunt, del Toro and Brolin are framed by director Denis Villeneuve’s stylish storytelling and cinematographer Roger Deakins’ exquisitely exciting camerawork. Go see it.

Songs from the North” is South Korean documentary filmmaker Soon-Mi Yoo’s personal exploration of the contemporary life and current political and cultural milieu in North Korea, notoriously out of sync with the rest of the world. In an impressionistic, nonlinear structure, footage from the director’s three recent visits to North Korea is interspersed with archival images of groups of citizens at work, at home, building, marching and engaging in all sorts of other collective activities. Traditional songs with English subtitles are used instead of conventional voice-over commentary. Never directly asked, but implicit in this contemplative compilation film is the unanswerable question of whether North and South Korea could ever possibly reunite now that their cultures have become so different. Fascinating and a relevant nonpolemical reality check.

Captive” is a truth-based high-tension drama adapted from the autobiographical book by Ashley Smith (Kate Mara). It centers on a drug-addicted single mom who was fighting her habit and struggling to regain custody of her daughter when she’s taken hostage by Brian Nichols (David Oyelowo), an escaped criminal who killed the judge assigned to hear his case. The film’s narrative and characters are convincing and the performances are gripping. But the overtly faith-based nature of the movie may put off some viewers who find it evangelical

Also of interest, Pawn Sacrifice” (which opened Sept. 16) is a fascinating biographical documentary about chess master Bobby Fisher. It reveals his troubled persona, his impact on world politics and, equally importantly from my point of view, the dearth of female players. If you’re concerned about women having a hard time in the realm of film, just take a look at what we experience in the world of chess!

Stay tuned for more September openers.

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