Filmed over five years by director Moby Longinotto, The Joneses is a very different but no less vital take on transgender men and women living in America. While many of the recent documentaries I’ve seen on the subject have focused on younger folks, this film sets its sights on Jheri Jones, a mid-70s transgender woman living in Mississippi, surrounded by many of her sons and her grandchildren as she maneuvers through life as a vibrant, still-dancing Southern belle, with the legs of a movie star and a survivor’s instinct that has kept her positive and thriving for decades.
Jheri is unique in that she doesn’t mind talking about her life before transitioning. In order to help her grandkids understand her journey, she pulls out old photo albums filled with images of her time married to a woman and an endless supply of stories to go with each picture. She certainly had her fair share of detractors when she first came out, especially in this hub of conservatism and religious fervor, but Jheri is also a God-fearing parent who never wavers in her conviction to live out and proud.
The fascinating part of her current life is how few of her troubles with her offspring have to do with her living a trans life. Any resentments or fighting come from newer issues, with two of her sons living with her in her spacious mobile home, another in a home for the mentally unwell, and the fourth (the one with the grandkids) living away from home but nearby. Many of their disputes seem to spring from just living in such close proximity to each other and never taking a few days or weeks to put some distance between them.
The film’s best moments do involve the normally confident Jheri admitting her fears of broaching the subject of her transgender life, but like in most places, the younger generation isn’t nearly as closed minded as their adult counterparts, and they seem delighted to finally have their long-burning questions about having an extra grandmother answered. The Joneses moves from low-level tension to heartwarming family drama quite beautifully.
I’m guessing versions of the conversations happening in this movie are happening around the country—some more successfully than others—and there are certainly times in the film when it appears Jheri is being slighted or ignored by extended family members. The movie also doesn’t forget to let us see the family having fun with each other. It’s not all one emotional crisis after another, and whenever Jheri turns on some music and starts to shake it, you can’t help but smile. The Joneses is a sweet, intimate work with modest storytelling goals centering on one family but representing a much bigger one.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.
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