‘Framing Agnes’ Review: Slight, but Heartfelt

Transhood, The Trans List, Disclosure, No Ordinary Man — the last decade is littered with documentaries on the present and recent past of transgender culture, and without exception these films feature at least one talking head decrying the salacious public and journalistic fixation on gender reassignment surgery, reminding viewers that to make the trans body into a public spectacle is to dehumanize and sensationalize it. What most of these films then fail to do is find a good reason they’re still plunking trans people in front of the camera and asking them deeply personal questions. Director Chase Joynt and screenwriter Morgan M. Page’s Sundance showing Framing Agnes has one of the better answers to date: that to understand invisibility in the context of trans lives, we must also interrogate the visibility of that same community.

The documentary takes as its jumping off point information gleaned from archival records on six trans people who worked with the UCLA Gender Clinic in the 1950s and 60s. Through a metatextual talk show format in which the actors portraying each clinical subject slip in and out of character to hold asides on the matters under discussion with Joynt, who also plays the host of these clinical-turned-daytime TV segments. The film’s stable of talent is game enough overall, but Silas Howard and Angelica Ross stand out as particularly nuanced both within and outside the reenactments, deftly infusing the material with deep warmth and quiet, dignified pain with nothing more complex than a subtle gesture or brief shift in inflection. 

Framing Agnes

Ins and Outs

The meta-fictional nature of the film is well-considered, juxtaposing and interweaving the acts of performance and scrutinizing private lives, but if the thin nature of Framing Agnes’s clinical exchanges plays smartly into the documentary’s thesis, it often feels repetitive and impersonal as well. If the pseudonymous Agnes pulling a fast one on sociologist Harold Garfinkel and co. in order to get hormone therapy and surgical intervention is manifestly the film’s heart and reason for being, its codifying act in which visibility and invisibility are inextricably entwined, where is that spirit in the rest of the movie? Why is the tone so sedate, the subject matter so studiously sexless? Framing Agnes manages to clear the hurdle of prurient voyeurism at which so many documentaries in its vein have stumbled, but it overcorrects and winds up feeling at points both impersonal and drearily wholesome.

Perhaps the film’s most irritating tendency is its occasional forays into corniness, as when talking head Jules Gill-Peterson drives to the beach and walks along the tideline so that we can watch the waves erase her footprints behind her. Her trans life is starkly visible, then lost to history. Cute. It’s the kind of heavy-handed metaphor that might play well woven into the larger structure of a film, but on its own it feels forced, a too-clever punctuation mark six inches after the end of Framing Agnes’s last sentence. Joynt and Page’s film is a patient, thoughtful debut, but its tame, polite tone and preoccupation with format and structure restrain it from real power.