Review: Framing Agnes

Written and directed by Chase Joynt, co-written by Morgan M. Page, after discovering case files from the UCLA gender clinic from the 1950s, a group of trans actors confronts the legacy of young trans women being forced to choose between honesty and access. Starring: Angelica Ross, Zackary Drucker, Jen Richards, Max Wolf Valerio, Silas Howard, Stephen Ira and Jules Gill-Peterson.

Chase Joynt follows up closely from his last documentary No Ordinary Man, bringing the same brilliant style to a new story. What’s fantastic about the almost meta way that Joynt approaches these features is that they provide a lovingly rounded perspective. Involving a variety of trans people to portray moments in trans history, while they reflect on their own experience and what these stories mean to them. Rarely do you get such an inclusive view on a subject, it’s a very open, honest and creative style. To some it may from the outset feel like it’s splitting itself into multiple avenues, but simply presenting fictionalised versions of these women, would not do them justice.

The key element of this film is making clear how important it is to explore transgender history, with most people likely only thinking of it in terms of the last twenty or so years; which is also something they touch upon. The three different lives that Framing Agnes explores show three very different experiences. It brings into the mix how each person’s experience of transitioning is entirely different, and is keenly influenced by age, race and background. Each of them have a strong personality and a refusal to give in to cheap attempts to boil down their identity to a purely physical perspective. It only gives a short window into the hatred, denial and misunderstanding that they each faced but it certainly shows how these women did so with grace and determination.

Everyone involved in the project frames these stories with an incredibly touching amount of empathy. You can see that there’s a sincere level of thought which has gone into how they want to tell these stories, in order give them the utmost respect. There’s a fascinating amount of transparency to it, acknowledging how our own perspective influences how we interpret the information. As well as that you can only learn so much from an archive, it can’t represent the entirety of a person. One particularly strong example of this is how Jules Gill-Peterson approaches the subject, she’s incredibly open and it’s moving to watch her traverse the feelings that are brought up while talking about these three women. She doesn’t purely provide an academic view, it’s also extremely personal. Each of those who appear on screen offer that up, they allow us to see a slightly vulnerable side to them.

Framing Agnes is a thoughtful and creative exploration of trans history. These stories could so easily be sensationalised but Chase Joynt and Morgan M. Page ground them and show how the trans generations of today relate to them. It creates a guided journey through this moment of history, giving each woman a voice and allowing audiences to understand their experience, with the help of each actor. A simplistic view would see only the different parts and not the whole, every element of this film works fluidly together to provide a rounded perspective. Simply portraying these women can only go so far, but interpreting their experience and how it reflects that of others, opens up a sincere conversation.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯½ | 9/10

Reviewed as part of BFI Flare 2022 – Available on BFI Player throughout the festival

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