Taking Back One’s Personal Power

No one likes to go through life without access to one’s personal power. Doing so leaves us vulnerable to being taken for granted and under the thumb of others who care only about themselves and have no regard for us. If allowed to continue unchecked, such circumstances can become toxic co-dependent relationships that are difficult to escape, potentially trapping us in perpetuity. So how do we extricate ourselves from such situations? That’s the underlying focus of the new campy horror romp, “Renfield” (web site, trailer).

For a seeming eternity, former real estate lawyer Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) has been a virtual slave to his powerful master. Having journeyed from his native England to Eastern Europe to close what he hoped would be a lucrative land deal to support himself and his family, Renfield approached his prospect with great gusto and enthusiasm, only to have the proposal take a drastic left turn when the target extends to him a proposal of his own – immortality. The seductive allure of that possibility wins over the young attorney, despite the strings that come attached with it, the most significant of which is agreeing to become a devoted servant to his new boss, an offer that Renfield readily accepts. But, despite what he’s been promised, Robert has no idea what he’s getting himself into given who his new master is – Dracula (Nicolas Cage).

Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult, left), personal assistant to Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage, right), seeks to change his life by taking back his personal power in the new campy horror romp, “Renfield.” Photo by Michele K. Short, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

In the years that follow, Renfield is introduced to high society and influential people. But, in exchange for this, he’s saddled with the responsibility of attending to all of his vampiric boss’s needs, such as going out every day and securing Dracula’s “dinner.” The routine gets old over time, and Renfield grows dissatisfied. He hasn’t seen his wife and child in ages, and the possibility of that happening grows progressively less likely. He also feels stuck in a meaningless existence with no hope of personal fulfillment. Nevertheless, he begins contemplating changes in his life, even though striking out in a new direction proves far more difficult than expected, keeping him trapped for decades.

After years of this, an event occurs that could change Renfield’s fortunes. Dracula is seriously injured when the night stalker is unexpectedly exposed to daylight, nearly causing his demise. His severely weakened condition requires intensive care to restore his health, and, because of this, he becomes more dependent on Renfield than ever. However, given the Count’s depleted state, he must remain in seclusion most of the time, holed up in an abandoned hospital in New Orleans, the duo’s adoptive new home. That convalescent isolation actually frees up Renfield’s routine somewhat; as long as he satisfies his master’s basic needs, there’s little that Dracula can do to keep tabs on his servant’s movements, enabling him to pursue his own interests, most notably changing his life to better suit what he wants from it.

Renfield decides to enroll in a support group helping individuals who are wrestling with the challenges of toxic co-dependent relationships. This self-help program proves quite enlightening, especially when the group’s facilitator (Brandon Scott Jones) informs his organization’s newest member that the key to overcoming situations like this is to take steps to take back one’s sense of personal power. It’s a revelation akin to a proverbial lightbulb going off over Robert’s head, and so he starts taking steps to that end – clandestinely getting his own apartment, covering his walls in motivational posters, saying his daily affirmations and buying himself a more cheerful, upbeat pastel wardrobe. It’s all a far cry from the dour, dismal lifestyle he’s been accustomed to living for so long.

But, as Robert soon discovers, there’s more to taking back one’s power than simply acquiring transformative surface trappings and mouthing the words that go with these ideas. It’s a process that requires deeds as much as thoughts. He gets a chance to put that notion into practice when he unwittingly becomes embroiled with a powerful New Orleans mob family, the Lobo clan, particularly its chief braggart muscle man, Teddy (Ben Schwartz), and oily, glamour puss matriarch, Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo). When the Lobos stage a raid on a questionable nightspot, Renfield is present when the hit goes down and immediately springs into action to protect the club’s patrons, innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. He also offers support to police authorities when they arrive on the scene, particularly an idealistic officer, Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina). And, when all is said and done, Robert and Rebecca forge a solid connection based on both their intense interest in law enforcement and, to a lesser degree, one another.

Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult, right), personal assistant to Count Dracula, seeks to change his life by joining a support group for those seeking escape from toxic co-dependent relationships led by Mark (Brandon Scott Jones, left), a facilitator who offers guidance on how to proceed, as seen in the new campy horror romp, “Renfield.” Photo by Michele K. Short, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

The situation becomes further complicated when the Lobos go in search of this mystery man who thwarted their raid, a pursuit that eventually leads them to the abandoned hospital and to Renfield’s boss. When Dracula learns who they are, why they’re there and what Robert has quietly been up to, the Count feels betrayed. However, upon meeting the mob family, he also finds new allies to both seek out the traitor Renfield and to join forces with them in implementing his plan to take over both New Orleans and the world beyond.

Before long, Robert and Rebecca get wind of what’s going on, and they realize what they’re up against. In addition to the alliance between Dracula and the Lobos, the enemies have the support of a police department that’s rotten to the core. Rebecca is already on the outs with the agency given her relentless investigation into the death of her father, a fellow officer. And, now that she’s taken a more aggressive posture to take down all the bad apples, she’s put herself and her sister, Kate (Camille Chen), an FBI agent, in jeopardy.

With circumstances like these, the deck is truly stacked against Robert. But conditions like these are in many ways ideal to prompt him to take action to take back his power. And, with a sidekick like Rebecca to offer ample inspiration, he’s got the means to put these practices into play. But will it be enough against the combined forces of Dracula, a powerful mob family and a monolithically corrupt police department? That’s a lot of power to be taken back.

Seeing one’s way clear of a toxic involvement isn’t always easy. For starters, one may not recognize the very existence of such an arrangement, let alone all of the consequences that come with it. And, even if it’s pointed out to the victim, he or she may not believe it, choosing to seek solace in denial. But, for those who are open-minded enough to consider the possibility, making such a change might seem too daunting to take the steps necessary to implement them. In all of these scenarios, nothing changes, and those caught up in them stay stuck, unable to move forward or remove the hindrances keeping them locked in place.

However, this is not to suggest that nothing can be done about these situations. As the support group facilitator astutely observes, those who feel persecuted by their co-dependent relationships can change the game by taking back their personal power, something they often don’t realize they’ve given away (and voluntarily at that). Admitting this is half the battle, and believing that we can do something about it is the tonic. Of course, that belief component is crucial given the role it plays in manifesting the reality we experience. It’s unclear whether those seeking to make a change are aware of this school of thought, but those who opt to give it a try may well find themselves pleasantly surprised at the result.

Idealistic New Orleans police officer Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina, center) seeks justice in a pervasively corrupt police department in director Chris McKay’s “Renfield,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Michele K. Short, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

As anyone familiar with this thinking knows, beliefs are powerful and persistent tools. But, if we choose to give away that power to a co-dependent relationship partner, as Robert has done, it can leave us without the wherewithal to materialize what we want for ourselves. This is because all of our power and beliefs are focused on fulfilling the wants and needs of others, implicitly placing us in a secondary position. In the end, how fulfilling can that be? It’s a painful lesson that the protagonist has come to learn over many years, and he desperately wants to rectify that. Unfortunately, that may not be easy given how this precious resource has been drained from him in light of the power and persistence of the beliefs that have made this outcome possible.

This is not to say that Renfield can’t get his power back. However, he must believe in the possibility and take steps to realize its manifestation, first with his beliefs and intents and then with his actions. He’s obviously up against a lot to achieve that goal, but those forces can benefit Robert by prompting him to galvanize his convictions, to make sure he’s focused on and committed to attaining his objective. That can go a long way to making it happen.

A common misconception where co-dependency is concerned is that it’s limited to the dynamics associated with close personal relationships, be it with romantic partners or family members. But, in essence, it can also be tied to anything that prompts us to give away our personal power, functioning almost like an addiction. And, from that, it’s apparent that Robert is not the only one in the film afflicted with this condition.

For example, in order for the Lobo family to maintain its criminal empire and its control over the residents of New Orleans, its members have had to buy into a way of life in which they’ve sacrificed their personal power for the sake of their greed-driven goals. This has meant, of necessity, that they’ve had to accept violence, killing, mayhem and other similar atrocities as the norm, regardless of how they might affect them personally. It’s a huge trade-off that they’ve been coerced into making as a means to pursue their objectives and maintain their status.

Similarly, Dracula has had to do the same in order to live the life of a vampire. He’s had to give up being able to go outside during the daytime. He’s had to make sure that he has access to a steady supply of fresh blood for feeding. And he’s had to accept the consequences associated with failing to live up to these conditions. This choice has rendered him powerless against living his life any other way. In essence, he, too, has given away his personal power to fulfill this ambition.

Mob matriarch Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo, left) lectures her overzealous son, Teddy (Ben Schwartz, right) on how to conduct “business” in director Chris McKay’s new campy horror romp, “Renfield.” Photo by Michele K. Short, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Then there’s the police department, which has made a comparable choice of its own. To benefit from the perks and payoffs that come from cooperating with organized crime, its high-ranking officers, such as Rebecca’s boss, Capt. Browning (James Moses Black), have compromised themselves to accommodate their partners in crime (literally). This, in turn, has alienated its virtuous staff members (and probably the citizens of New Orleans), leaving authorities to continually figure out ways to sustain themselves, a task that undoubtedly calls for them to routinely pour their energies into maintaining their position of power, a significant drain on this precious resource.

The sad part in all this is that none of the Lobos, Dracula nor the police fundamentally realize what they’ve gotten themselves into. By having to continually shore up their respective positions, they’re continually investing their power in simply maintaining the status quo. That lack of awareness and outpouring of power, in turn, have provided Robert and Rebecca with a valuable weapon against them – the ability to channel their own power into combatting what is becoming an innately dwindling resource, despite the combined forces that have arisen as a result of their unholy alliance. Who do you think is ultimately going to win that battle?

From the foregoing, the benefits of taking back one’s personal power should be obvious. But, as this film also illustrates, what often seems obvious to outside onlookers isn’t always readily apparent to those caught up in dicey situations like this. That’s why assessing and understanding our beliefs is so important, especially when it comes to the management of that power. If we remain oblivious or unconcerned, we run the risk of giving it away, leaving us unable to manage our affairs, particularly those where the input of that resource is important to fulfilling the objectives we hope to achieve. Robert and Rebecca understand this, and we’d be wise to follow their example.

I must admit that I had some doubts about this one going in. Those who know me are well aware that I’m not a huge fan of horror flicks (unless they’re smart horror or campy comedic romps). But director Chris McKay’s refreshingly humorous take on the Prince of Darkness mythology as told through the eyes of his longtime personal assistant pleasantly surprised me. As a melancholic soul who’s looking to get more out of life than the perpetuation of his unfulfilling tenure as a glorified go-fer, Renfield seeks to change his destiny, a sentiment that many of us can probably relate to. What I found most intriguing about this film is the way it successfully (and hilariously) merges the personal growth/self-help theme in a horror flick context, a brilliant fusion that works amazingly well. To be sure, considering the story’s horror roots, there’s plenty of blood-dripping gore as this yarn unfolds, but it’s all presented with a delightfully whimsical, albeit macabre sense of play, especially in its exceptionally well-choreographed, over-the-top campy action sequences, segments reminiscent of pictures like “The Kingsmen” and “Deadpool” franchises. The narrative also features ample sendups of the self-help/personal growth community, sequences that deliver big belly laughs at the expense of New Age dilettantes who believe that simply reciting a mantra will somehow lead to profound universal enlightenment.

Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage) seeks to implement a fiendish plan to take over the world in the hilarious new campy horror offering, “Renfield.” Photo by Michele K. Short, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Admittedly, the pacing lags in a few spots, and the meshing of the story threads could have been handled a little more deftly at times. Nevertheless, despite these modest missteps, the laughs are definitely in huge supply here, thanks in large part to the film’s excellent cast, including the fine performances of Hoult as the lost but transformation-minded milquetoast and Aghdashloo as the cheesy mob matriarch. But the one who really steals the show here is Cage, who turns in his best work in years (perhaps even of an award-worthy caliber), memorably embodying the character of Dracula and genuinely making it his own, much like what Michael Keaton did with Beetlejuice and Ryan Reynolds has done with Deadpool. “Renfield” is truly a lot of fun, presenting a skillful blend of substantive, deceptively nuanced material wrapped up in a vehicle where such content is least likely expected. So go sink your teeth into this one; you’re sure to have a bloody good time. The film is playing theatrically.

Freely giving away something that’s so vital to the functioning of our daily lives can carry grave consequences, outcomes that we often can’t see or aren’t even aware of until it’s too late. And, when this practice is allowed to settle in and get cozy, reversing it can be exceedingly difficult. But, considering what’s at stake, it would behoove us to make the effort to get it back before there’s no hope of retrieving it. As something that’s the lifeblood of our existence, we can’t afford to recklessly dispense it. Considering what we’re potentially giving up by doing so, we stand to lose too much – and that would surely leave us in the lurch, where no amount of self-help practices can help us get it back.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Better Late Than Never


The wisdom of that time-honored expression often rings true, especially where the April movie review broadcast of the Frankiesense & More video podcast is concerned. Due to technical and staffing difficulties beyond our control, we’ve had to push the show back a week, But don’t worry – it’s the first of two May shows on the subject! So, with our sincere apologies, join yours truly, Good Media Network Movie Correspondent Brent Marchant, and show host Frankie Picasso for five new movie reviews on the next edition of the show, to begin airing Thursday May 4 at 1 pm ET. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!

Recounting an Alternative Community’s History

All too often, we think we know an individual or community when, in fact, we don’t understand them well or at all. There could be various reasons for this – a lack of information volunteered by the subjects in question, preconceived notions on our part, widely circulated commonly held misconceptions, or even so-called, generally accepted urban legends. It’s unfortunate when these developments occur, because they frequently present us with an inaccurate, misleading perception. That makes setting the record straight a prime consideration, an objective sought in the intriguing new documentary, “Framing Agnes” (web site, trailer).

For quite some time, the transgender community has been grossly mischaracterized and, consequently, misunderstood. Public impressions of these individuals and their constituency at large have often been oversimplified, grossly misconstrued and seriously misrepresented, primarily because many in society were unwilling to make the effort to do so. Differences often equated to fear, and fear frequently morphed into prejudice, ill-conceived stereotypes and widely held ignorance. What’s more, out of expediency and “convenience,” members of the transgender community have been routinely (and simplistically) lumped in with others on the sexual “fringes” of society (gay men, lesbians and bisexuals) merely because they shared the mutual quality of being “different” from the mainstream in-born heterosexual majority. Yet this superficial quality of “difference” didn’t convey much about the nature of the trans community nor what it had in common – and not in common – with the others with whom they had been so summarily grouped, as well as what distinguished it from the remainder of society at large.

Agnes (Zackary Drucker, right), a pioneer in the transgender movement, prepares to participate in the re-creation of a UCLA research study interview presented in the form of a simulated 1960s-style TV talk show with a fictional host (Chase Joynt, left) standing in as a surrogate for Dr. Harold Garfinkel, the leader of the university investigation, as seen in the engaging new documentary, “Framing Agnes.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Consequently, those who have sought to pursue their unique identities as members of transgender society have largely received short shrift. To be sure, their inclusion in LGB society may have helped to promote tolerance, acceptance and the promotion of civil rights for these individuals, but has it done the same for encouraging understanding of what trans persons want, who they are and what their community stands for?

Some would contend (and rightly so) that many in transgender society have only started to come above board in their own right over the past few years, and their recognition as a separate, distinct community is a comparatively recent development. However, it could also be argued that this may never have happened were it not for the pioneering (albeit quietly understated) efforts of transgender community members and their supporters who have sought to validate their existence, culture and identity. Those courageous individuals laid the foundation to make this possible, and the purpose behind this film is to recognize those efforts in helping to bring these advances into being.

“Framing Agnes” is a bold, innovative attempt to both chronicle the history of the trans community and to depict what its members experienced personally as its and their stories unfolded. This is accomplished through an inventive collection of archive footage of an early researcher in this field, re-creations of interviews with research subjects (portrayed by a cast of all trans performers), observations of those performers regarding their views on the present-day status of their community and the insights of a noted trans writer/historian. This compilation makes for an enlightening, eye-opening watch, one that sheds valuable historical and contemporary light on an often-misunderstood segment of society.

That misunderstanding most likely began in 1953, when American Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989) returned home from Denmark after undergoing what was one of the first successful gender reassignment surgeries. The former George Jorgensen had hoped to discreetly slip back into the US and live a quiet life. However, when she arrived at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, she was met with a throng of media hounds who paid her more attention than the Danish royal family, who were aboard the same flight. Jorgensen immediately became a celebrity, but her story was treated with titillating sensationalism, limiting her ability to be herself and to help accurately educate the public about the transition she had undergone. Because of this, she was unable to earn a living by doing anything other than making public appearances, a path that eventually led her to become a singer, stage actress and night club entertainer. She also became the de facto poster child for her people, unwittingly setting the standard that much of society drew upon when looking at the trans community.

While Jorgensen helped put the transgender community in the public eye, her experience was anything but typical of what she and others like her had hoped would come out of it. The sensationalistic treatment accorded her became what the public expected when it came to writing and reporting on this subject. But, for many of those who were considering the transition option at that time, this is not at all what they wanted. They saw these prospective experiences as private matters to be handled with tact and discretion. They saw themselves in need of undergoing treatment for what they viewed as “a mistake of nature,” not as an invitation to be treated like a carnival side show act. However, with the risk of such cheap, tawdry exploitation always hanging over them, they wanted no part of it and didn’t always know where to turn – and to whom – to get genuinely meaningful guidance.

This situation caught the attention of researchers at UCLA in the early 1960s. Led by Dr. Harold Garfinkel, these investigators wanted to learn more about gender reassignment prospects, including their reasons for pursuing this treatment and their feelings about living life as transgender individuals. And so studies were launched to interview subjects on this topic and to help them get the assistance they needed to realize their goals, such as obtaining access to hormone therapy treatments in advance of any surgeries that might have been performed.

Georgia (Angelica Ross), an African-American pioneer in the transgender movement, discusses the difficulty of managing dual personal challenges in mid-20th Century America in writer-director Chase Joynt’s award-winning documentary, “Framing Agnes,” now available for streaming online and home media. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

The findings of those studies were compiled, but they essentially disappeared for many years. However, when transgender community historians like Jules Gill-Peterson began searching for these materials, not only did they find interview transcripts, but they discovered a wealth of documents and other evidence of these studies, most of it perfectly preserved. Almost overnight, an extensive history of the early days of transgender research surfaced, opening a door to investigations of the subject that had been thought lost for good.

So who were these interview subjects, and what did they bring to the research? That’s much of what this film focuses on. It introduces viewers to six individuals who took part in the study through re-creations of their interviews. But, instead of presenting these conversations in a clinical setting, they’re staged through a simulated period piece black-and-white TV talk show (a la The Mike Wallace Interview) with the program’s host (Chase Joynt) serving as a surrogate for study leader Harold Garfinkel. The host questions the subjects about an array of topics, including their experiences prior to and after their transitions, the challenges they faced throughout this process, what was behind their decisions to move forward with the change, how these events have affected their lives and feelings about themselves, and what they’ve experienced in the wake of their transformations.

As the movie’s title suggests, the principal interview subject is a trans woman named Agnes (Zackary Drucker), whose presence pops up repeatedly in the research papers. As the story goes, Agnes was anxious to gain access to the hormone treatments and surgical practices that are integral to the transition process, neither of which were readily available at the time for a variety of reasons. Agnes was so determined, in fact, that she allegedly lied her way into obtaining the procedures she needed. However, receiving these treatments is essentially all she wanted out of this, the means to get on with living the kind of life she had envisioned for herself. And this reasoning is believed to account for her virtual disappearance after her transformation, almost becoming a sort of urban legend within the transgender community. Nevertheless, the interview transcripts show that she was a real individual and that she shared her story as part of the study, an experience that proved quite revelatory in the annals of trans community history.

Agnes was not alone, though. There was also Barbara (Jen Richards), who spoke candidly about what she underwent both before and after her transition, particularly in terms of society’s rigid gender role expectations for both trans individuals and those who willingly accepted their birth genders; and Georgia (Angelica Ross), an African-American trans woman who spoke about what it was like for a person of color to go through this at a time when she and others like her were also wrestling with the challenges of the Civil Rights Movement; and Denny (Silas Howard), who, like many individuals in the early days of the trans movement, sought to have his community’s own identity recognized in itself and not just as a specialized adjunct arm of the gay community, a challenge that continued long after the trans movement’s initial establishment; and Henry (Max Valerio), a trans male who sought to establish his identity at middle age; and Jimmy (Stephen Ira), a transgender teen from rural America whose exceptionally open-minded parents (for the time) arranged for him to see specialists to help him explore transition options when most of their peers wouldn’t even consider talking about the possibility, particularly where their children were concerned.

These stories reveal a rich, eye-opening tapestry of conditions and circumstances that the pioneers in the transgender community experienced as a result of their racial backgrounds, chronological ages, motivations for undergoing the process, personal backgrounds and various other considerations. Indeed, the uncovering of their experiences through the interview sequences clearly illustrates that these individuals were far different from what many in society thought about them then (and, to a certain extent, even now). Misconceptions about what supposedly characterized the members of this community are largely swept away. Revelations about the everyday life dealings that they, like other members of society had to contend with, rise to the surface, showing that their lives truly weren’t as inherently “foreign” as many of the uneducated might have thought they were. And the notion that all trans individuals were members of an intrinsically monolithic community with a pervasively uniform mindset proved to be a myth that wasn’t supported by this evidence.

The viewpoints of the actors portraying these figures shed additional light on these matters. Through contemporary interviews with the actors when out of character, viewers learn what they think about the present-day state of the trans community, particularly the ways it has changed since the 1950s and the ways in which it’s still the same, especially when it comes to how those on the outside continue to view it. They, like many community activists, discuss how trans individuals want to be viewed for the individuals that they are and not just as a specialized subset of the larger sexual minority with which they’ve traditionally been associated. These views are further backed up by those of researcher Gill-Peterson, who points out that the widely held fallacies of those who are unfamiliar with the community are no longer true – and never really were to begin with.

The various components that have gone into making up the content of this film may seem like an unusual cinematic combination. Yet, when one considers the information and impressions that they impart collectively, they paint a picture that provides a clearly defined, decidedly different view of what has long been erroneously held by much of society at large. In that way, this documentary makes a powerful statement aimed at changing the hearts and minds about what many of us believe to be true about the nature of a unique community that’s simultaneously different from, and yet also very much like, the rest of the overall society of which it is a part.

Agnes (Zackary Drucker), a pioneer in the transgender movement, is said to have used whatever means were available to her to obtain access to the scarce treatment and surgical procedures for facilitating her transition, as chronicled in the new documentary, “Framing Agnes.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

The key word in that last sentence is “believe,” for it has the power to define the parameters of what supposedly delineates the character of an entire segment of society, both among those looking at it from the outside, as well as among those on the inside looking out. Beliefs of any kind can indeed become entrenched, thanks to their innate persistence and power, both of which eventually possess the means and momentum to set the limits, impressions and character of the subject matter in question, including something as large as an entire segment of society, especially when enough of us buy into their seemingly inherent validity. Changing these beliefs is always possible, but their mutability in altering our existence can be difficult to adjust once they firmly take root, as the experience and history of the trans community so clearly illustrate.

Many of us may not be aware of this school of thought, but the output that comes from this is all around us to see, and its entrenchment can become so imbedded that it’s hard to envision things being any other way. And, in the case of society’s outlooks on the nature of the trans community, this has often been just as true among those within it as it was among those on the outside. Insiders may not have wanted this to be the case, but, when they looked around and saw what was surrounding them, it may have often been difficult for them to think otherwise.

That’s why the dissemination of the findings from the UCLA study and this film are so important. Both shine a bright light on the long-held misconceptions about the trans community and how these newly revealed contrary views have been part of its nature and culture from the beginning, even if not widely known. This information presents revelations that could act as the seeds of new beliefs, notions planted in the collective consciousness that yield new ideas among both trans individuals and those on the outside. And we all know what can happen when such new beliefs take root and become established.

The emergence of new views of the transgender community in recent years has done a lot to help distinguish it as its own segment of society, even as one separate from the LGB community from which it has long been associated. That’s important – and empowering – to a group of individuals who have sought to overcome their fears and limitations and seek recognition for the intrinsic inclusivity to which they’re entitled. And this film does much to bolster the community’s optimism and enthusiasm on this front, as well as its efforts to support initiatives to help bring about the fulfillment of its objectives. To be sure, the examples offered up here can go a long way toward shifting perspectives and what may ultimately stem from them.

Georgia (Angelica Ross), an African-American pioneer in the transgender movement, is said to often felt isolated on multiple fronts when undergoing her personal transformation, as examined in director Chase Joynt’s fascinating new documentary, “Framing Agnes.” Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Anyone who believes that he/she has a good handle on understanding a community’s culture and sensibilities is bound to have his/her eyes thrust wide open by this thoughtful, inventive documentary. In creating this offering, the filmmaker seeks to enliven the little-known life experiences of mid-20th Century transgender pioneers (like the title character) and how they blazed trails for those who followed, particularly in terms of being themselves, questioning society’s rigid gender role expectations, and managing their transitions in conjunction with other life challenges, such as racial equality. The mix of narrative components used for exploring these matters makes for an intriguing, enlightening watch, one that moves along at a refreshingly brisk pace thanks to its astute observations and economical 1:15.00 runtime. To be honest, though, as informative as the talk show sequences are, the use of this storytelling device feels somewhat contrived (if not more than a little gimmicky), despite the depth of the revelations to come out of them. Still, there’s ample food for thought packed into this 2022 Sundance Film Festival NEXT Innovator Award winner, much of it illuminating about both this diverse community and the notion of gender itself, regardless of one’s personal leanings.

It’s often been said that one should not judge a book by its cover. That’s wisdom we should all heed, especially when it comes to judging others and our impressions of them. As this documentary so effectively illustrates, there’s a good chance we might well get it wrong, and that misconception could easily persist for a long time, causing who knows how much damage in the process. Thankfully, this film shows how we can overcome that pitfall and approach our assessments with an enlightened new outlook. And, if we were all to employ that notion, there’s no telling what kind of transformation could result.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Wrestling with Grief, Creativity and Adolescence

Where do we turn when the bottom falls out? That’s difficult enough at any age, but what is one to do when going through an impressionable time of life, such as adolescence? The coming of age considerations that teens face are often burdensome enough in themselves. However, when they’re compounded by a significant loss, starting over may seem impossible. Such are the conditions that a devastated young woman must figure out for herself in the new comedy-drama, “The Moon & Back” (web site).

When Peter and Diane Gilbert (Nat Faxon, Missi Pyle) got married, they were madly in love with one another. In fact, Peter endearingly told his new bride that he would indeed love her to the moon and back. And later, when the couple welcomed the arrival of their new daughter, Lydia (Riley Madison Fuller), that love expanded even further, filling their home with palpable, undeniable warmth. This pervasive affection was further enhanced by an enduring sense of creativity and playfulness, qualities primarily put in place by Peter, a move that infused the family’s household with positive, inspiring, mutually supportive vibes. The bond between father and daughter grew particularly strong under these conditions, with each of them becoming adoringly devoted to one another.

However, when a teenage Lydia (Isabel May) entered high school, circumstances drastically changed as Peter’s health began faltering, eventually leading to his untimely death. It goes without saying that Lydia was devastated. She withdrew into herself, falling into a relentlessly unremarkable holding pattern. And, after a year of this, as Lydia began her senior year, she seemed more lost than ever.

Such is the prologue of this film, told largely through simulated home videotape archives. As the main story opens, Diane tries coaxing Lydia out of her malaise. After all, the time is fast approaching when they’ll need to make some decisions about Lydia’s college plans. Diane initially approaches the subject tactfully, but, given Lydia’s grief-stricken state of mind, she’s ambivalent about continuing her studies, an attitude that worries mom. She wants her daughter to further her education, despite the financial hardships it will place on the household, but she’s met with intractable indifference. Lydia has intentionally put her life on hold, and Diane wonders whether she’ll ever start moving forward again.

Circumstances soon change, however, when Lydia stumbles upon a half-written sci-fi screenplay that Peter had been working on prior to his death. She’s intrigued by the script and decides that making a movie based on this material would make for a fitting tribute to her dad. It’s not exactly the plan that Diane had in mind, but, if it motivates Lydia to start doing something with her life again, she’ll willingly throw her support behind it.

Thus begins Lydia’s experiment to find herself. Having never made a movie before, she’s embarking on a project in which she truly doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. But that doesn’t stop her from launching into this exploration of the unknown. And so, armed with only a video camera, a half-written script, a handful of money and a whole lot of gumption, she sets off on this journey of discovery.

Lydia is by no means alone in this endeavor; she has ample support from a ragtag array of backers who are truly in her corner and want to see her succeed, especially since they know how much this project means to her personally. She receives zealous backing from her high school guidance counselor, Mr. Martin (P.J. Byrne); classmates Simon (Miles Gutierrez-Riley), Josh (Taiv Lee) and Mariana (Molly Jackson); her neighbor, George (Roman Michael); and, of course, her mother. It’s indeed encouraging to see how readily they all rally to her cause, aptly illustrating that the assistance we need somehow manages to materialize when we need it most. And, as events unfold, it becomes apparent that Lydia really needs it.

Enthusiasm aside, Lydia has her work cut out for her on this project. Having no experience as a filmmaker, she has to improvise much of what she does as she goes along. This is further complicated by not having a finished script for the picture, prompting her to figure out where she ultimately wants to take the story. Then there’s the pressure to be true to her dad’s intent, which is considerable, since he never finished the screenplay, leaving her to intuit where she thinks the story should go to fulfill his vision.

Lydia Gilbert (Isabel May, left) seeks to get her life back on track after suffering a devastating personal loss in director Leah Bleich’s delightful coming of age comedy-drama, “The Moon & Back.” Photo courtesy of Prodigium Pictures.

What’s more, undertaking a venture like this at a time of life that’s fraught with its own inherent challenges can be particularly daunting. The coming of age process can be difficult enough in itself without the added stress and anxiety that often accompany endeavors like this. And the absence of the one person who one would most likely turn to for advice at a time like this – in this case, Lydia’s dad – can be even more trying. But the fact that the budding auteur is willing to take on all of these challenges simultaneously speaks volumes about just how inherently ambitious she truly is. That’s a big step for someone who not long before had trouble getting off the dime to get on with her life. Indeed, with determination like that, there’s no telling what else she might be able to accomplish – maybe even venture to the moon and back.

Moving forward when we suffer a debilitating setback can be quite a burden. The feeling of being deflated is often more than we can handle. And, as Lydia’s experience in the wake of her father’s death illustrates, it’s a painful ordeal that takes away much of our enthusiasm for wanting to do anything. So where do we go from there?

The most obvious answer is looking for a way to pick up the pieces and carry on. But, before we can do that, we first have to believe in the notion that such a step is even possible. And, when we’re weighed down by such palpable emotions as grief, longing and despair, mustering up the faith and conviction to foster such beliefs is, at the very least, unnerving, if not overwhelming. Thus, getting past such a discouraging outlook and changing the beliefs that go with that are essential if we ever hope to get our lives back on track. It’s unknown whether Lydia has ever heard of this school of thought, but, if she ever hopes to make something meaningful and fulfilling out of her life, she had better consider it as a means for reaching that goal.

Lydia is starting from a difficult place in this regard. Not only does she not know how to fulfill her objectives, she can’t even envision what they might be. By not knowing what we hope to achieve, we don’t even know where to start, let alone how to reach a desired destination. So the question once again becomes, where do we go from here?

Since the primary purpose of one’s existence is to create it, anyone who is experiencing what Lydia is going through might want to consider that objective as a starting point. In essence, this involves looking for something of a creative nature that will generate a sense of personal satisfaction. It gives us something to believe in and an undertaking into which we can direct our energies, and virtually anyone who has embarked on such an endeavor can testify to that effect. The key, of course, is finding such a project and being willing to pour ourselves into it, a practice that generates the beliefs necessary to make it possible.

That’s precisely what happens for Lydia when she finds her dad’s unfinished screenplay. The discovery sparks her interest in multiple ways – it gives her something to focus on, it gives her something to which she can provide a sense of completion and it gives her a way to pay tribute to Peter, something she needs to do to get past her grief and provide a much-needed sense of closure. Its inherent artistic nature also embodies the very notion of creativity, what lies at the core of the kind of recovery sought here. By tackling this project, Lydia has a valuable opportunity to get back in step with her purpose for living, to rejoin the existence of which she is a part.

It helps immensely that she has so many backers in her corner, too. Their support provides validation for this undertaking, not only as a means to honor her father, but also to provide direction for getting her life back on track and infusing it with a much-needed sense of purpose (one that could even lead to the development of a vocation, giving her the focus that has been so lacking in her life for a long time). It comes at a significant time in her life, too, considering the often-challenging conditions that arise when one goes through the coming of age process. Her movie project serves as something of a buffer against those considerations, helping her to grow and mature into adulthood and to keep petty adolescent distractions at bay that might otherwise consume a disproportionate amount of her consciousness and attention.

Perhaps most importantly, though, this venture enables the healing process to go forward, something Lydia desperately needs. It enables her to adopt a new perspective on her reality, a change that allows her to employ a new overall outlook on life, one that carries the potential to radically shift the nature of the existence she experiences. This is not to suggest that putting her old life behind her requires her to erase memories and emotions about her father; rather, it means altering her frame of mind so that she can put that portion of her life in a new context, one that retains the best of that time without preventing her from moving forward into a new way of living. As many of the world’s philosophical, metaphysical and spiritual traditions maintain, everything is in a constant state of becoming, but that evolution can be thwarted when we implement beliefs that intentionally seek to derail that process, as she has been doing for some time. It’s nice to see that she’s found a way to eliminate that stagnation, one that has restored her forward progress, made it possible to contextualize her grieving and allowed her to once again have some fun in her life. And all it took was implementing a little creativity.

Coming of age can be difficult enough in itself, but, when we lose someone who has been a source of valuable guidance in the midst of that process, the result can be shattering. Under conditions like that, it can be easy to lose one’s way. So it is for Lydia, who needs to chart a new course for herself. And, when she does, she learns that an important part of coming of age means letting go of what no longer serves us and being willing to strike out on our own – even leaving behind the source of inspiration who helped us get so far. Writer-director Leah Bleich’s charming comedy-drama provides viewers with a refreshingly distinctive take on material typical of this genre, providing just the right amount of heart tugs but without overdoing it, all the while serving up both laughs and serious moments that successfully avoid the clichés often found in stories like this. The narrative manages to stay on track quite well, despite a few meandering lulls, keeping the storytelling crisp and economical. And, given the excellent, incisive, edgy character development here, this offering strikes me very much as being the movie that “Lady Bird” (2017) was striving to be but could never quite get right. Indeed, “The Moon & Back” is a fun, pleasant, enjoyable little diversion, but it’s by no means a lightweight, just what a film of this stripe should be.

Unfortunately, finding “The Moon & Back” at the moment may be a little difficult. The picture has primarily played the film festival circuit, and news of a general distribution in theaters and/or online has not yet been forthcoming. Nevertheless, viewers interested in this offering would serve themselves well by catching this delightful charmer if a screening opportunity were to present itself, especially in communities that stage film festivals.

No one wants to endure a devastating loss. Such tragedies are difficult enough in themselves, and envisioning what comes in their aftermath can be frightening, both in terms of their impact and what might be involved in going through them. Yet situations like this are one of the inevitabilities to which we’re all subjected at some point in our lives. We may not like having to undergo them, but they nevertheless provide us with an opportunity to learn how to respond to adversity. They test our ability to cope. They test our resiliency to bounce back from these situations. And they teach us how to be creative and flexible in overcoming hardship. There may even be the proverbial silver linings buried within them. No matter what results, however, they afford us the chance to grow as individuals, and that can prove exceedingly valuable in the long run, a heartfelt gift bequeathed to us from those who have left us, one that can help us to become who we were meant to be.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

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