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Amazon's Always Jane is among a newer crop of transgender documentaries that skew toward the celebratory over the sensational

  • The four-part docuseries follows transgender teen Jane Noury, a high school senior awaiting gender confirmation surgery who is planning for her future in college and as a model. Always Jane, says Robert Ito, "is among a crop of recent TV documentaries that skew toward the celebratory over the sensational, featuring younger transgender subjects who, unlike their predecessors of decades past, have the terminology and understanding to describe what they’re going through, and are growing up at a time when more viewers have been exposed to transgender people and the issues they face. The documentaries, which include films like Transhood (about four transgender children growing up in Kansas City) and Little Girl (a portrait of an 8-year-old transgender French girl), both from 2020, reflect a changing culture that allows for deeper and more nuanced explorations of their subjects — even as the films themselves contribute to those cultural changes." TJ Billard, a communications professor at Northwestern University and the founding executive director of the Center for Applied Transgender Studies, in Chicago, says of the recent documentaries: "When you look at the history of trans documentaries, it started with this subculture perspective on trans people, like, ‘Look at this weird corner of the world nobody knows about.' Then it moved into highly medicalized documentaries about the ‘scientific wonders of gender conversion.’" Ito adds: "And now? More and more of them, like Always Jane, tell stories of determined and immensely likable transgender children or teens who face adversity — from bullying to bathroom wars — and beat the odds. Many of the documentaries, some filmed nearly a decade ago when their subjects were very young, have created opportunities for their subjects since." As Ito points out past films about the transgender experience such as 1967's Queens of Heart and 1978's Let Me Die a Woman focused on exploitation with anonymous subjects. Pointing to TLC star Jazz Jennings of I Am Jazz, Ito says: "Today’s subjects are often anything but anonymous, and many have moved beyond the documentaries they appeared in to pursue opportunities as actors, writers and activists."


    • Always Jane's problem is that too often feels like "inspiration porn": "With so much reality TV available it’s hard to find concepts where that reality can compel an audience to stick around," says Kristen Lopez. "Too much conflict can come off as fake or forced. Or there’s the opportunity to go the other way, and make the reality seem particularly real because of a 'day in the life' method — which has always been popular in documentary. There’s nothing good that old-fashioned cinema verite can’t achieve. But often that can cause things to feel just as fake or forced, and such is the issue with Amazon Prime Video’s four-part docuseries Always Jane. Always Jane follows high school senior Jane Noury, a transgender teen awaiting her gender affirming surgery, planning for college, and stepping into the world of modeling. By her side are her parents, David and Laura, her two sisters, and her grandfather. Right away there’s a dissonance in what Always Jane actually is — as summed up in the above synopsis — and how it’s being sold. The official synopsis presents far more conflict, citing how 'today’s political and social climate may not seem like the easiest time for a transgender teen' and, while true, that doesn’t actually come through in any of the episodes. Let it be said, Always Jane doesn’t revel, nor should it, in the trauma that was Jane’s life. She talks frankly about bullying, while her parents and her older sister Emma, who attends the Naval Academy, hint at more political issues like then-President Trump rolling back rights for trans people...She’s appropriately silly and sweet, all of which we see in moments of her driving with her sisters or during the few scenes of her at school. But maybe because of the timing with COVID, Jane’s life feels far too isolated. Most of her friendships are conducted on Instagram, and that’s before lockdown sends everyone home. There’s a real sense of confinement and selectivity in who tells this story that even how we’re supposed to see Jane feels controlled."
    • Too much of the interesting parts of Jane's life happen off-camera: "Always Jane offers only the most anodyne glimpses of these events," says Angie Han. "The series takes the loose, often meandering form of a journal, incorporating clips shot by Jane herself on a camcorder along with the usual fly-on-the-wall footage and interviews with Jane and her friends and family. There’s no shortage of scenes of everyday life — Jane’s dad making sausage and peppers, Jane’s grandpa reminiscing about his work on Apollo 12, Jane tossing her hair for the camera, and her sisters affectionately calling her out for same — and they seem intended to impart a sense of casual frankness. But the fun of picking up someone else’s journal lies not just in seeing what they’re up to day to day; it’s in the opportunity to watch them work through unfiltered emotions or thorny ideas in the moment. Always Jane, by contrast, too often feels like it’s coming in after the big events are over, after the feelings have already been sifted and processed and neatly packaged for outside consumption. Most of the soul-searching seems to happen off-camera — Jane and her mom might allude to Jane’s earlier ambivalence about becoming more involved with the trans community in her hometown, but Always Jane is apparently not the time to dissect it. Even the much-hyped modeling competition, the central focus of episode two, becomes anticlimactic when it passes by so quickly that I could only assume Hyde was hampered by rights issues."

    TOPICS: Always Jane, Prime Video, Jane Noury, Documentaries, LGBTQ