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film review

After discovering case files from a 1950s gender clinic, a cast of trans actors turn a talk show inside out to confront the legacy of a young trans woman forced to choose between honesty and access in Framing Agnes.Ava Benjamin Shorr/Courtesy of Mongrel Media

  • Framing Agnes
  • Directed by Chase Joynt
  • Written by Chase Joynt and Morgan M. Page
  • Classification N/A; 75 minutes
  • In select theatres Dec. 9

Critic’s Pick

As much a rebuke to documentary tactics as it is to the historical record, Canadian Chase Joynt’s Framing Agnes is a film about finding and then breaking form.

The subject matter is introduced in a conventional enough way: After looking into the private 1950s and 1960s archives of UCLA sociologist Harold Garfinkel, Joynt and sociologist Kristen Schilt uncovered the story of Agnes Torres, a trans woman whose participation in Garfinkel’s gender-health research marked something of a landmark in her community’s history. But just as quickly as Agnes arrived at UCLA – using understandable acts of deception to secure the gender-affirming care that she needed – she disappeared into the fog of academia.

Joynt’s doc, based on his 2019 short film of the same name, attempts to answer just who Agnes was – along with illuminating the records of other, forgotten Garfinkel subjects – by a curious device that, despite its high-concept and risky shtick, works. Using contemporary trans performers, Joynt stages a series of faux-retro talk-show segments, in which he plays the slick interrogator – half Mike Wallace and half Jack Parr – of Agnes (Zackary Drucker), Georgia (Angelica Ross) and Barbara (Jen Richards).

But we don’t stay stuck in this manufactured past all too long, with Joynt frequently tearing down his own artifice to allow his performers to tell their contemporary stories of identity and existence. And then these moments are further punctuated by contextual breaks in which Johns Hopkins University professor Jules Gill-Peterson breaks down Garfinkel’s work.

The argument for the fourth walls that Joynt builds and then breaks through are laid out at the film’s beginning: late-night talk shows were where he would first encounter trans artists. And it was the unchecked territory of daytime television where the media’s sometimes lurid fascination with trans subjects would reveal slivers of truth that were perhaps not fit for prime-time consumption.

While there is an early sense in Joynt’s film that it is simply fun to ape the environs of bygone television eras, the re-enactments ultimately work on a narrative level, too. There are intersecting layers to Joynt’s film whose thematic and contextual conversations with one another would be lost were he to simply line one conventional talking head up after another. With only Garfinkel’s archives to go on, Drucker is able to give a sly, necessarily mysterious air to Agnes’s life. And, yes: the format is quite fun to watch, too.

Zackary Drucker as 'Agnes' in Framing Agnes.Ava Benjamin Shorr/Courtesy of Mongrel Media

Like the breeziest of talk shows, though, Framing Agnes is almost too brisk of a thing. Made under Telefilm’s micro-budget Talent to Watch program, there is evidence in the margins that Joynt had an even more ambitious project in mind. The film is several steps up from his last form-busting doc about trans identity, 2020′s No Ordinary Man (co-directed with Aisling Chin-Yee), but with more resources it could have been a giant leap.

Someone on Joynt’s team needs to get him busy on the talk-show circuit right now. Hopefully such a tour will catch the eye of a better-funded investor eager to fund his next vision.