Framing Agnes — the second feature-length documentary directed by Chase Joynt, who also co-directed No Ordinary Man (2020) — lays the vast bulk of its most interesting elements and a good deal of its many flaws at the feet of its central conceit. The Agnes of the title is a near-legendary figure among the trans community, who lied about elements of her physical development to UCLA researchers in order to obtain hormones and surgery and then informed them of her deception. In the course of trying to do research on this mythical and misunderstood figure, researchers also found the records and interviews concerning a number of other trans people interviewed in the same study, whose predicaments carried significantly less notoriety.
To capture this, Framing Agnes leans into an askew form of historical reenactment: Joynt himself plays a talk show host (seemingly patterned after Mike Wallace) interviewing each of these people as they sit across from each other at a small desk with a large, old-fashioned microphone, all of which is rendered in black-and-white with rounded televisual corners. The rationalization given in the film is that the talk show in the late 1950s, when the study took place, served as the default public forum for people to express themselves, and that staging the reenacted conversations in such a manner flips the script of the power dynamics of the clinical interview. It’s also pointedly populated by trans people: Joynt, along with historian Jules Gill-Peterson, writer Morgan M Page, and the actors in the reenactments, including Angelica Ross, Max Wolf Valerio, and Zackary Drucker as Agnes; the only person on screen who isn’t trans is sociologist Kristen Schilt.
But the gulf between good intentions and shortsighted execution can be great, and such is the case with Framing Agnes. While the interviews are drawn from the actual transcripts, a certain overt performativity, as encouraged by Joynt’s grandstanding talk show host, clashes with what ought to be cagy and considered replies to questions that can verge on flippant. The distancing of these moments through the relative stylization of black-and-white would also rankle less were it not for the implicit suggestion that it was depicting a different time, one less enlightened than our modern sensibilities, despite the inclusion of news footage of Christine Jorgensen which features interviewers arguably talking more respectfully than the majority of the American public would for decades.
But the viewer is never allowed to sit with Framing Agnes’s interviews, which might take up less than half of the actual film. Instead, there are reams of interviews with the actors themselves, often shot in a way that bizarrely attempts to foreground the recording apparatus — Joynt and Schilt interviewing Gill-Peterson in profile, a camera and C-stand plainly visible; Ross interviewed in a church with a long-shot in profile showing the entire lighting setup and boom microphone; there’s even the intrusion of contemporary 16mm footage with visible sprocket holes (one of the true plagues of this year’s Sundance slate). Though the film arguably deserves to be in the festival’s NEXT section for its genuine attempt to reach for something different in nonfiction filmmaking (though it, the weakest film in competition, won both prizes), it seems to lose its nerve, or at least much of its ability to commit to its thorniest and most potentially insightful elements. This writer admittedly doesn’t have the ability to comment on the specific offenses that trans writers like Esther Rosenfield and Willow Maclay have raised with this film, but the inability to dig deeper into a subject ripe for further study is plain enough to see for the discerning viewer.
Published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 5.