Framing Agnes review — Engaging, flawed doc on trans culture

Directed by Chase Joynt | Written by Joynt and Morgan M. Page | 75 min | ▲▲▲△△ | Crave

This documentary from the No Ordinary Man filmmaker aims to explore the history of transsexual culture in the United States.

The film offers reenactments of trans actors playing characters/people (based on the historical archive from UCLA) intercut with the trans actors sharing their own experiences and how that informs the understanding of the people they’re portraying.

We also get the filmmakers’ effort to share behind-the-scenes footage to offer transparency and a sense of process, and on top of that we get another narrative, which has the producer/academic Jules Gill-Peterson providing context. All of this breathlessly edited to the point where it’s a challenge to follow any of the individual stories because we keep cutting away to another thread. Here’s where the film’s concise 75 minute running time might be to its detriment.

I feel like if they’d committed to the “talk-show” conceit for the first half of the film, given us time to get to know those characters then followed that with all the other, background material, the project would deliver a lot more clarity.

The one moment that genuinely annoyed me was when Gill-Peterson talks about writing a book about trans kids in order to avoid tough questions about their own identity, and we cut back to the directors’ emotional reactions. I gnashed my teeth a little at that manipulation as it’s a flagrant step away from journalistic rigour. Haven’t they seen Broadcast News?

All that said,  I enjoyed a lot of the film. The archive itself is a character in the story, and the filmmakers do a good job showing how the preconceptions of the white male researchers were framed, along with what we learn about the subjects of the research. I was fascinated by the suggestion that by being black and trans in the 1950s you were effectively breaking the law. I didn’t know much about Christine Jorgensen and found that portion (with actual archival footage) interesting. Performers Zackary Drucker, Jen Richards, and Angelica Ross all do really good work. I just wish Joynt had trusted them to carry more of the film.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.