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‘Framing Agnes’ unearths historic trans narratives for engaging doc

Pioneering figure beat the cis-hetero patriarchy at their own game

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Chase Joynt and Zackary Drucker in ‘Framing Agnes.’ (Image courtesy of Kino Lorber)

You might assume in 2022 that information about our cultural heroes from the past would be readily available. After all, we carry the entire repository of human knowledge, or at least the potential for accessing it, in the palm of our hands; if someone has made a significant impact in our history, even within the history of a specific community, it stands to reason that a factual chronicle of their life would exist.

What happens, though, when an important figure is part of a community that has been historically disregarded by the mainstream narrative? When the influence they’ve cast across the years has been buried deep in anonymity by a determined effort to marginalize or even erase the community they represent?

That’s the question explored in “Framing Agnes,” a new film from transmasculine Canadian director Chase Joynt (“No Ordinary Man”) that blends documentary, narrative, and speculative analysis as it goes on a deep dive into the buried case files of an infamous gender health study headed by psychiatrist Robert Stoller at UCLA in the 1950s and 1960s. The “Agnes” of the title refers to the pseudonymous “Agnes Torres,” who was one of dozens of individuals interviewed as part of the research about transgender identity.

Agnes, portrayed in Joynt’s movie by Zackary Drucker (“Transparent”), has become legendary within the trans community for successfully navigating an institutional system to access the gender-affirming care it would otherwise have denied her. At a time when surgery was only granted to intersex individuals, she lied about having taken estrogen to feminize her body from an early age, claiming instead to have been born with physiological characteristics of both genders; she was given access the procedure, which was performed in 1959, and continued to participate in the study. Years later, she confessed her ruse to Stoller, who was then forced to retract and rethink the findings which had formed part of the basis for his influential writings around transgender identity — writings, it should be said, that approached the subject as a “pathology” and considered it a psychological condition to be corrected or prevented.

It’s easy to see why Agnes would be a heroic figure to today’s trans community. After all, she not only beat the cis-hetero patriarchy at their own game, she also managed to single-handedly sabotage the credibility of theories that were being used to legitimize anti-trans bias. Though her real identity may be forever hidden to us, her audacity alone is more than enough to elevate her to the status of trans icon.

She was, however, not the only one. The interviews – which were conducted by sociologist Harold Garfinkel, Stoller’s collaborator on the study – also document the lived experiences of many other anonymous participants, and Joynt’s film positions Agnes as only the best-known among what was, in fact, a much wider and more diverse sampling of individuals, all with relatable stories about living a trans life in mid-century America. These include trans women of color as well as trans men, who were far outside the boundaries of what most Americans were willing to accept in an era when Christine Jorgensen – pretty, blonde, and “respectably” cultured – was the only face of “transsexuality” in the public eye.

In “Framing Agnes,” Joynt elevates a handful of these unsung trans pioneers alongside Agnes, collaborating with several notable trans performers – besides Drucker, Angelica Ross (“Pose”), Jen Richards (“Mrs. Fletcher”), Max Wolf Valerio, Silas Howard, and Stephen Ira are among the cast – to re-enact their interviews with Garfinkel on camera. Eschewing a straightforward approach in favor of a more artful conceit, these segments are presented not in their clinical setting, but in the style of a Mike-Wallace-style TV interview of the era, with Joynt himself taking on the role of Garfinkel opposite each of his subjects. Even further, he intersperses the re-enactments themselves with footage and interviews documenting the creation of the segments – something akin to a “making of” special feature built right into the movie itself – and commentary focused on putting these historical snapshots of trans life into the context of what we now understand about transgender identity.

While it all might sound a trifle art-y, the filmmaker maintains a loose, accessible, even playful tone to the style – while still respecting the subject matter, and the subjects – that no doubt contributed to the movie’s win of both the Audience Award and the “NEXT” Innovator Prize at this year’s Sundance Festival. Rather than interrupting the flow, this stylistic format illuminates the material as we go, giving us a chance to share the insights of the artists as they work to bring these nuggets of history to life, and offering an opportunity to reflect on how these long-hidden tales of queer existence connect to our own in the here and now.

Yet there are times in “Framing Agnes” – particularly in its latter half – when one can’t help but feel frustrated by a sense of distance. We are ultimately given only snippets of these compelling narratives and left only with conjectured facts that can be extrapolated from contextual circumstance or by reading between the lines; the onscreen discussion around them – helped immeasurably by the availability of language around the subject matter that didn’t exist at the time they were recorded – serves to enlighten, to amplify, and to humanize, but we are never allowed to get deeply enough inside them to really know the people at their center.

That, of course, is the answer to the question we posed in the beginning. When the record of our heroes has been suppressed, all we have left are icons. We can surmise, project, interpret, and guess as much as we want, but we can never know much, if anything, about them beyond whatever words they may have left us. In the case of Agnes and her fellow interviewees, those words reveal much about what it was like to be trans in their time, and verify many of our assumptions about it while contradicting others. 

They tell us things about their feelings, their relationships, their self-esteem, their survival tactics, and many of the other universal touchstones of experience that can evoke solidarity between generations an era apart; beyond these things, they tell us nothing, and we can only rely, like the artists who came together to create “Framing Agnes,” on our imaginations.

It helps that each of the performers seems deeply invested in their character – further proof, if any were needed, of the value of lived experience over outsider assumption when it comes to acting in such roles – and that the vintage segments are executed with meticulous skill and attention to detail. And if we are denied, perhaps, the opportunity to fully access the lives of the people Joynt’s movie profiles, we are welcomed into the conversation about them – indeed, into the whole creative process – by the artists who brought them to us.

“Framing Agnes” is currently in a limited theatrical run before expanding to select cities nationwide. If it doesn’t make it to a screen near you, don’t worry – it’s slated for a streaming debut early next year.

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Oscar-nominated ‘Nimona’ an essential gem for queer fans

Rescued from oblivion of studio politics, film rings palpably authentic

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The two queer protagonists of ‘Nimona.’ (Image courtesy of Netflix)

If you weren’t already a fan of ND Stevenson’s webcomic-turned-graphic-novel, last summer’s release of Netflix’s screen adaptation of “Nimona” likely escaped your notice. But with its emergence on multiple critics’ choice lists and awards show ballots for 2023, it’s time for you to pay attention.

Created while Stevenson — who has since come out as a trans man — was a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art and initially distributed on Tumblr, the comic was published in print in 2015 to become an award-winning bestseller. It’s an adventuresome sci-fi/fantasy blend set in a futuristic world where the fairy tale knights of medieval tradition have been given a high-tech makeover; but what captured its audience even more than its high-spirited, whimsical creativity was its unsubtle exploration of LGBTQ identity, underscored by a same-sex love interest for its hero but resonating most deeply through its shape-shifting title character and a plot that revolves around the systematic suppression of “otherness” by society. Yet, “controversial” elements notwithstanding, it’s fully and unapologetically targeted toward YA readers – the very audience, of course, that is most in need of its messaging in a time when the discourse around queer identities has become an omnipresent source of existential anxiety for young people attempting to come to terms with any non-hetero-normative leanings that might be bubbling to the surface of their developing psyches.

When Stevenson – who went on from the success of “Nimona” in print to become the creative force behind numerous queer-friendly projects in various media, including a stint writing for Marvel (the comics “Thor” and “Runaways”), Disney’s animated “Wander Over Yonder” series, and the acclaimed Netflix reboot “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” – came out as trans in 2020, the themes of queer acceptance in his seminal work were illuminated beyond a shadow of a doubt. In the meantime, “Nimona” had already been optioned to 20th Century Fox Animation as the basis for a film adaptation, produced by their subsidiary Blue Sky Studios; when Disney acquired the rights to Fox and its properties, the movie fell under its control. According to staffers, commenting in the wake of Disney’s then-CEO Bob Chapek’s clumsy response to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” political campaign, the film had already experienced pushback from studio executives over its LGBTQ themes, and especially its inclusion of a same-sex kiss – and when COVID-related financial pressures led to budget cuts, Blue Sky, was officially shut down, along with “Nimona” and all the rest of its projects.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of the story. “Nimona” was picked up by indie production company Annapurna in 2022, with Nick Bruno and Troy Quane stepping in as directors, and Netflix granted distribution rights. The completed film, with all of its intended queer elements firmly intact, was given a limited theatrical release in June of 2023, debuting as a streamer on the Netflix platform a week later – to the delight of fans who had believed the long-awaited project to be a lost cause barely a year before.

It took another six months or so for the rest of the world to take notice, but thanks to its inclusion on critics’ choice lists and awards-season buzz in the wake of multiple nominations, “Nimona” has become one of last year’s “hidden gems.” and now stands within plausible reach of achieving the highest possible honor from the Hollywood movie industry: the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Of course, whether or not it wins that (or any other) accolade has little objective bearing on its quality as a film; while positive steps toward inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ characters and stories may be a laudable accomplishment in today’s tenuous social environment, they don’t necessarily equate to cinematic excellence from the wider perspective of aesthetic analysis. Fortunately, in this case, the two viewpoints merge perfectly to provide a movie that is at once keenly relevant to queer life in the modern age and defined by an artistic vision that transcends any political agenda or clumsy social engineering in which it might otherwise have allowed itself to become mired. While it may place its queer or queer-suggestive characters front-and-center in the spotlight, its message is unmistakably aimed toward anyone who feels (or has ever felt) like an outsider in a world that rewards conformity over individual truth – and let’s face it, that means everybody.

In Bruno and Quane’s finished film, there is no effort to obscure or downplay the story’s queer underpinnings: the hero, a newly minted knight named Ballister Boldheart (voiced by Riz Ahmed) is unequivocally gay, deeply in a fully requited love affair with fellow knight Ambrosius Goldenloin (YouTube star Eugene Lee Yang), and his shapeshifting sidekick, the titular Nimona (Chloë Grace Moritz), is so obvious an allegorical avatar for trans-hood that only the most oblivious of viewers could miss it. That’s fortunate: deprived of its deeper purpose of accessibility for those “outside the norm,” there would be nothing all that special about “Nimona” beyond its admittedly stunning visual design, which evokes connections to thematically related movies from “Sleeping Beauty” to “Star Wars” and everything in between. But though it makes painstaking effort to honor those and other influences within the scope of its pointedly progressive narrative, it establishes and inhabits its own distinctive milieu, carving a space for itself in which it feels neither derivative nor mired in gimmicky conceit – and it achieves this mostly through its loyalty toward (and empathy with) the characters whose status as outsiders to the mandated cultural standard makes them even more relatable.

Admittedly, it’s hard to miss the allegorical broad strokes in the plot, in which Boldheart, the first knight without a direct link to the ancient bloodline of the ruling class, is framed as a political criminal and targeted for elimination by a governing system steeped in long-standing traditions and prejudices, or to its seemingly juvenile title character, a girl with the ability to transform her physical being at will who is branded and persecuted as a “monster” because of it. As the story progresses, revealing even more hidden-in-plain-sight correlations to the “real” world, it’s difficult to imagine even the most obtusely straightforward viewer being blind to the story’s clear message about the corrupting influence of ancient and unquestioned preconceptions on the systems that govern our world.

Its aggressively deployed messaging, however, is not a detriment; “Nimona,” rescued beyond probability from the oblivion of studio politics and economic setbacks, rings all the more palpably authentic for wearing its agenda on its sleeve. In its unequivocal and undiluted embrace of the queer experience of “otherness” which lies (barely) beneath its every nuance, it becomes the inclusive, gay-and-trans-affirming parable it was always intended to be, emerging as a front-runner in the yearly race for accolades from a cautiously mainstream industry establishment in spite of its unapologetic queerness.

If that doesn’t make it essential viewing for queer movie fans, we don’t know what would.

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French ‘Lie With Me’ believes in love after love

A compelling story about the capacity of human beings to heal

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Victor Belmondo and Guillaume de Tonquédec in 'Lie With Me.' (Photo by Michael Crotto; courtesy Cinephobia Releasing)

Sometimes, a love story is about what happens after it’s over as much as how it starts.

Take, for example, the French import “Lie With Me,” which makes its U.S. debut via DVD and VOD on Feb. 15. Based on Philippe Bresson’s 2017 novel “Arrête avec tes mensonges” (“Stop With Your Lies”), it was filmed in 2021, hit the European festival circuit in 2022, and received a general release in its homeland in early 2023, and is making its first appearance on American screens at a time when most film buffs are already looking toward whatever 2024 movies might be coming our way after the hoopla of awards season fades into the background for another year.

Don’t let its status as a “late-bloomer” put you off, however. As any true film buff knows, such circumstantial factors have nothing to do with a movie’s inherent worth or quality. Indeed, it’s often the most overlooked films that ultimately prove also to be the most satisfying, and even if it doesn’t come with the kind of industry buzz that often holds a perhaps unwarranted sway over the tastes of the moviegoing public, this one strikes enough of an emotional chord for queer viewers (especially those who came of age in an earlier generation) to make it worth going out of one’s way.

Directed by Olivier Peyon from a screenplay he wrote with Vincent Poymiro, Arthur Cahn and Cécilia Rouaud, “Lie With Me” is a slice-of-life character study, set in the mid-1980s, in which a celebrated-but-controversial gay author – Stéphane Belcourt (Guillaume de Tonquédec), now in advancing middle age – returns to his hometown of Cognac as the “guest of honor” for the anniversary celebration of a company that produces the city’s namesake liqueur. It’s a bittersweet trip for him, conjuring painful teenage memories of a first love who disappeared from his life without explanation and has left him yearning for closure ever since; but his melancholy is displaced by unexpected intrigue when he discovers that Lucas (Victor Belmondo), the young man responsible for his invitation to the festivities, is the now-adult son of his long-lost paramour, opening up the possibility of finding answers he never thought he’d have – but only if he can let his defenses down enough to ask the necessary questions of Lucas, who seems to be seeking some answers of his own.

Tinged with wistful nostalgia and built around an eminently relatable coming-of-age narrative that invites comparison with movies like “Call Me By Your Name” or any of the countless similar tales of painful first love that have been a staple of queer cinematic romance since such things were “permissible” on the screen, “Lie With Me” fully assumes the wistful tenderness of its genre by interweaving his main story with the one which happened all those years ago – the unexpected and clandestine affair between younger Stéphane (Jérémy Gillet) and his sullen, secretive, and deeply-closeted classmate Thomas (Julien de Saint Jean), rendered with the kind of fragile sweetness that gives such tales of youthful awakening their irresistible appeal, largely thanks to the authenticity and chemistry of the two young actors who play it out for us. Even so, it takes a more brooding and palpably melancholy tone than most of us might be used to in a love story, partly due to the fact that the romance at its center has been over for decades, yet still casts a long shadow over its haunted protagonist, who seems never to have been able to fully give his heart (or, more to the point, his trust) to anyone since. It’s a romantic movie, to be sure, but one in which the romance is viewed through the bitter hindsight of a man who was left burned by it, and becomes even more un-requitable with the revelation of tragic developments that came in the years between.

As a consequence, it can sometimes feel like a depressing slog; Stéphane’s jaded, defensively deployed misanthropy occasionally becomes as much an obstacle to our empathy for him as it does to his making real connections with the people around him on the screen, and there are times when our patience with his self-imposed emotional isolationism wears thin. Yet that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Peyon’s film is not exactly a “love story” in the usual sense, but an exploration of what happens to someone in the aftermath of a loss – and the emotional devastation it has wrought on their life –  that has been kept, undiscussed and unprocessed, as a kind of lifelong “sacred wound.”

Yet it’s also an exploration of how such trauma can finally begin to be healed through connecting with others who share a common sorrow. As a balance to Stéphane’s guarded, occasionally abrasive persona comes the younger Lucas’ outgoing, approachable enthusiasm for connection, which comes in even greater contrast to his older counterpart’s attitude as we gradually discover his own hidden sense of loss; it’s this quality that serves as catalyst in bringing the two men together, despite reticence in both of their corners, and ultimately brings the story to a denouement that, while far from the kind of happy-ever-after ending so many queer viewers usually long to see, might just allow them both to achieve something like closure.

The result is a film that overcomes its own gloom to offer hope without resorting to wish-fulfillment fantasy – something it owes to its insightful and autobiographical source novel, a critically-acclaimed bestseller (transcribed for English-language publication, surprisingly enough, by actress Molly Ringwald, who enjoys a lesser-known career as a writer and translator) in its native France, and to the savvy adaptation from Peyon and his fellow screenwriters. The humanity essential for making it work, however, is delivered through the work of its two leads, with the César Award-winning de Tonquédec’s unvarnished star turn as Stéphane finding a natural symbiosis with the affable Lucas brought to life by rising talent Belmondo – and yes, if you’re wondering, he is the grandson of Jean-Paul Belmondo, the late French New Wave screen legend whose iconic looks and charisma he has certainly inherited. Alongside Gillet and de Saint-Jean, veteran French actress Guilaine Londez rounds out the main cast with a memorable performance as a provincial event coordinator with more observational savvy than she lets on.

None of that is likely to be enough to give “Lie With Me” the kind of feel-good appeal so many modern queer audiences hunger for; though drawn with enough depth and complexity to elevate it above the familiar-yet-still-relevant tropes of its narrative – doomed same-sex love, tragic queer victimhood, the self-sabotaging power of internalized homophobia – it still tells a story that feels frustratingly repetitive to the generations that didn’t live in the era it takes place, and perhaps even for many of those from the generations that did. We can’t argue with preference, so if its subject matter and thematic palette seem to you like something you would rather skip, then you’re probably right. For anyone else, though, it’s a thoughtful and ultimately compelling – if not quite uplifting – story about the capacity of human beings to heal.

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For queer film nominees, look to GLAAD, not Oscar

Annual awards highlight performances you may have missed

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Sterling K. Brown in ‘American Fiction.’ (Photo courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios)

Hollywood awards season is a bleak time for new releases, simply because most of the offerings being highlighted on our screens – both big and small – are literally last year’s news. Even so, it’s a welcome chance to catch up on some of the titles we may have missed before a nomination or two earned them a place in the spotlight they might not have gotten the first time around.

Unfortunately, the competition roster for Oscar — as well as many of the other big award bodies — is woefully short on movies where LGBTQ characters and themes are placed front and center. Don’t get us wrong: There are quite a few historic nominations in this year’s mix for queer talent and content. Still, if we’re searching for the year’s best in queer and queer-inclusive cinema, we have to look elsewhere — and that, of course, means GLAAD.

The nominees for GLAAD’s 35th Annual Media Awards, presented since 1990 to “honor media for fair, accurate, and inclusive representations of LGBTQ people and issues,” were announced on Jan. 17, in the wake of the organization’s acceptance of the iconic Governors Award at the 2023 Emmys Ceremony for its decades of unwavering advocacy and the positive impact it has made in normalizing a queer presence in mainstream television entertainment; its picks for the year’s best film offerings, though they have been (unsurprisingly) overshadowed by the Academy Award nominations that were announced a week later, embody the kind of cinematic excellence we love while also ensuring that LGBTQ stories and experience are not erased from the cultural narrative – and it’s that last bit that makes watching them feel just a little bit more like lending your support where it’s truly needed.

That’s why we’re taking the time to highlight some of the titles that can be found there. Some of them – “All of Us Strangers,” “The Color Purple,” “Knock at the Cabin” and “Blue Jean,” among a few others – we’ve reviewed previously, but we’d love to focus your attention on some of the “hidden gems” that more or less came and went without the kind of fanfare they truly deserved. Because it’s a long list (GLAAD divides its movie categories to reflect wide- and limited-release films, as well as differentiating between narrative, documentary, theatrical and streaming/made for television productions) we really only have room to point out the ones we consider the “cream of the crop.” But we encourage you to check out the full list of nominations on the GLAAD website for more. And since the awards also cover television, literature, comics, and journalism (yes, the Blade is a previous winner!), there’s plenty to explore even if your tastes run toward other forms of media than the movies.

Included alongside the aforementioned titles among the nominees are:

AMERICAN FICTION: Also up for a few Oscars, this satirical look at race in America from writer/director Cord Jefferson delivers a tongue-in-cheek narrative about a Black author (Jeffrey Wright) who adopts the pseudonym and persona of a wanted felon to make a point about the way Black stories are accepted in the white American mainstream, only to achieve success beyond anything he’s written under his own name. It’s a delicate balance between plausible premise and farfetched conceit, but Jefferson makes it work, thanks to a likable performance by Wright, and scores extra points with his treatment of a secondary plotline in which the author’s newly out-of-the-closet brother (Oscar-nominated Sterling K. Brown) embraces his life as a gay man.

ANYONE BUT YOU: Loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” this fluffy rom-com follows Bea and Ben (Sydney Sweeney and Glenn Powell), who – after a fumbled first date – find themselves thrown together at the destination wedding of their own siblings (Alexandra Shipp and Hadley Robinson) and forced to make nice with each other for the sake of the happy couple. We won’t lie: it’s neither deep nor terribly insightful, but it has its heart in the right place, not to mention a lesbian wedding at the center of its premise, and the eminent watch-ability of its two charismatic stars does the rest of the heavy lifting required to make it an enjoyable, love-affirming romp.

MOVING ON: Written and directed by Paul Weitz, this revenge comedy reunites iconic “Grace and Frankie” co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as two estranged BFFs who bury the hatchet in order to get even with the husband of a recently deceased friend. The material doesn’t always match the level of talent brought to the table by its legendary leading ladies, but their chemistry more than makes up for the gap, making this one a surefire hit for a movie night on your couch.

ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE: From the bestselling YA novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz comes this endearingly hopeful film adaptation from Aitch Alberto, in which a pair of Tex-Mex teens in El Paso (Max Pelayo, Reese Gonzales) grapple with cultural expectations and gender norms as they come to terms with their attraction for each other – and, for a refreshing change of pace, this time their immediate families are mostly in their corner. Like many queer-themed indie gems, this one shines brighter than its mainstream-produced compatriots simply by virtue of not having to care about alienating audiences still wrapped up in homophobic traditions and beliefs – making it more of a must-see for LGBTQ viewers than most of the year’s higher-profile offerings

JOYLAND: Shortlisted but ultimately passed over for nomination in Oscars’ Best International Feature category, Pakistani filmmaker Saim Sadiq’s drama centers on a low-income family that is rocked when the father (Ali Junjera) takes a job in an erotic dance theater and becomes infatuated with his transgender co-star (Alina Khan). Addressing hardline cultural norms about sexuality and gender roles, it was predictably subject to censorship and controversy in its native country – but nevertheless managed to emerge on the world stage (it took both the Jury Prize and the Queer Palm awards at the Cannes Film Festival) as a prime example of cinema’s ability to “speak truth to power” in a way that transcends the moral outrage leveled by those unwilling or unable to accept its message.

ORLANDO, MY POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY: Nominated in the Documentary category, this audacious work of cinematic activism from Paul B. Preciado brings together trans and nonbinary performers of all ages in an exploration of Virginia Woolf’s century-hopping novel “Orlando,” the tale of a young Elizabethan nobleman who morphs into a woman halfway through the story. Illuminating his own transformation through the authentic voices of the players he brings together, the director captures a universal connecting thread among the trans and gender-non-conforming talent he enlists for his film, daring to suggest that the “norms” enshrined by mainstream culture are ultimately political constructs opposing the natural flow of individual self-actualization. It’s a powerful argument, making for a not-to-be-missed gem of a movie.

The GLAAD Media Awards will be presented, across two ceremonies, on March 14 and May 11, 2024.

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