The subject/star of the documentary The Joneses, Jheri Jones, is introduced to the audience goofily modeling a one-piece swimsuit at 74 years old while favorably comparing herself to Madonna & Marilyn Monroe. The movie could use more of Jheri’s magic charm from this moment, which recalls the over the top fashion modeling Little Edie delivers in the classic doc Grey Gardens. Unfortunately, we only get it in glimpses as the film (somewhat understandably) focuses on the hardships suffered in her life, particularly in regards to her family. Jheri Jones is a trans woman & mother of four who transitioned late in life in rural Mississippi. Living with two of her sons & supporting her other two children in an almost equal capacity, Jheri bears a lot of weight on her shoulders. She finds tight social & economic restraints on what modern Mississippi living affords her as a working class trans woman with multiple family members struggling with disability. She’s absolutely fabulous as a personality, though, something The Joneses too often loses track of while it searches for the visual & emotional details of her hardships, often to its own detriment.
Because Jheri’s public gender transition is decades behind her, there isn’t much to The Joneses in terms of immediate plot. The film makes unnecessary attempts to build conflict around two central revelations: Jheri revealing her assigned-at-birth gender to her grandchildren and Jheri’s son revealing a secretive personal journey of his own to both his family & himself. The tension built in these conflicts is a distraction from what makes the movie special. The Joneses works better when it functions as a plot-free portrait of an American family living within highly specific circumstances, but universal commonalities. Flipping through The Joneses’ old picture albums or watching Jheri prepare an endless cycle of routine meals for her boys is far more interesting than the dramatic structure the film attempts to apply to their lives. You can feel the camera searching for tension in the family’s Confederate flag & trailer park surroundings, but none of it is ever as exciting as Jheri accidentally burning toast or the intrusion of a previously unseen house pet. The Joneses is at its best when it simply sits back to watch its titular family perform small acts of routine domesticity.
I’m not sure if the ideal version of this documentary would be a more investigative look at what it was like for Jheri to transition as a middle-age woman in modern Mississippi (something that’s only referenced in passing) or if it would be just a solid 90 minutes of her bullshitting & modeling her fashion for the camera. There’s nothing in the film’s domestic conflict that’s half as exciting as Jheri cutting jokes while wearing sunglasses & a fur coat, a testament to how endlessly charming she is as a personality. As such, I don’t think I actually enjoyed the New Orleans Film Fest Screening of the film itself as much as the Q&A with Jheri that followed, which I’m only mentioning here because I typically hate post-screening Q&A’s. I can’t recommend The Joneses as much of a transformative feat in documentary craft; if anything, the filmmaking style often gets in the way of the work’s best asset: its subject. As a work of progressive queer politics, however, it’s often endearing just for its patience in documenting a universally recognizable American family that just happens to have an adorable trans woman at the center of it. There’s a political significance to that kind of documentation the film should have been more comfortable with instead of pushing for immediate dramatic conflict.