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In the fourth and final episode of Prime Video’s Always Jane, a professor at the School of Visual Arts makes her pitch to Jane Noury, a prospective student with an interest in cinematography. “You will be encouraged to communicate with everything in you,” she says. “There’s so many stories that haven’t been told. You just tell your story your way, unapologetically.”
It’s an inspiring sentiment — and, unfortunately, one that Always Jane itself struggles to live up to. Directed by Jonathan C. Hyde, the docuseries is in many ways a win for representation, positioning the story of trans teen Jane and her family as a cuddly (and very overt) argument for supporting and protecting trans kids. But as a work of art, it feels about as deep and candid as a model’s Instagram feed.
Airdate: Friday, Nov. 12
Director: Jonathan C. Hyde
Always Jane picks up during a whirlwind time for its subject. As we meet Jane in January 2020, she’s getting ready to head from small-town New Jersey to Los Angeles to participate in a modeling competition she hopes will kick-start her career. She’s a few months out from both high school graduation and gender confirmation surgery, and has started looking to enroll in SVA sometime after that. Then, of course, there’s the coronavirus pandemic, which arrives around episode three as a real-life plot twist threatening to derail her plans. These are high highs and low lows, the sort of once-in-a-lifetime milestones that should have no problem powering a few hours of thoughtful and revealing storytelling.
And yet Always Jane offers only the most anodyne glimpses of these events. 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.
Where Always Jane does work is as a semi-stealth PSA modeling ideal behavior for families of trans kids. The series opens with Jane talking about how “lucky” she was to get the support she did from her family when she came out, and the next four-ish hours reaffirm the love between Jane and her family over and over. By the end of the fourth episode, the message is made totally explicit: “I thought to myself, what if I never accepted Jane?” her dad says to the camera, tears welling in his eyes. “What a scoundrel, what a fraud I would be. What a horrible father I would be.”
It’s easy to imagine how such a display of familial warmth might feel reassuring to young trans kids and their families. Always Jane may not change the mind of anyone dead-set in their transphobic ways, but those people probably aren’t tuning in to the show in the first place; it might, on the other hand, nudge a skeptical cis person in the direction of openness and acceptance. There’s undoubtedly value in the series as a counterpoint to the hateful hand-wringing over school bathrooms and detransitioning, and certainly there’s room for stories that celebrate the positive and uplifting experiences of trans people as well as those that delve into struggle and strife. In that sense, Always Jane has aims beyond just telling a good story.
But it is presented, at least initially, as an intimate first-person account of a family’s journey of transition, rather than a glossy brochure about best practices. And seen that way, the docuseries wants for depth and specificity. The Jane we get to know seems like she could be anyone. Which may be, in part, the point: Always Jane is making the case that trans kids deserve support and love and opportunities like any other kid, that they like giggling with friends or bickering with their siblings or fantasizing about prom as much as anyone does, and it does so more or less successfully. But it falters when faced with the question that SVA professor poses in the meeting: “What is it that makes us want to see a Jane film?”
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