Documentary Review: Small town Transgender Mississippian invites us to keep up with “The Joneses”

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“Walk a mile in my shoes,” the old saying and song go. “Everybody’s dealing with something” is a similar, more modern plea for compassion and empathy.

Because who among us could deal with the burdens of Jheri Jones of Pearl, Mississippi?

“The Joneses: Every Family Has a Story to Tell,” lists them.

Jheri is 74 in the film and lives in a double wide in a trailer park on the buckle of America’s Red State poverty belt. She shares it with two adult sons, one diagnosed special needs, the other pushing 40 and depressed about a life that has amounted to little that he can count as a contribution.

She has a third son in an assisted living facility, and a fourth who has teenage kids who do not know grandma’s secret.

Grandma used to be Grandpa. Jheri used to be Jerry, married Doris and had four kids. In 1980, they divorced and he began his transition.

All this in that oasis of tolerance and open-mindedness that America knows is  Mississippi.

Moby Longinotto’s film gets close to Jheri, and by extension her family, and captures a flamboyant free spirit who salsa dances all by herself, speaks frankly about her sexual history and hints at the murderous atmosphere she came out in and “the closed, segregated Mississippi” where she was raised — a place where it was “a scary time to be different.”

She says grace before every meal, never misses a Sunday at Mt. Gilead Primitive Baptist Church and talks about her difficulties, over the decades, “looking for a good, solid relationship…How far do you go before telling them about your situation?”

As upbeat and refreshingly blunt as Jheri is, “The Joneses” is more broadly a depressing portrait of Dead End America, far removed from big, sophisticated cities. Three of her four sons have mental issues, and the one who is “only” depressed — Trevor — cannot win the argument with her that her dumping the family and changing her gender (operations and all), her ego and vanity, weren’t easy to grow up in.

“I TRY to understand you,” Trevor says. “THIS is why we don’t grow as a family.”

There is collateral damage for being forced to live a lie, and this is never more obvious than when preening, dishing Jheri criticizes her late wife for the depression, anger and weight gain that led her premature death — as if Jheri had nothing to do with any of that.

“The Joneses” is like a Southern Gothic reality TV version of “Baskets” — dysfunction and hardship all around, lost souls (save for married, runs-his-own-business Wade), and a transgender woman at the vortex of it all.

“She’s been there,” Wade declares. “Sometimes, that means more than anything.”

Once she reconnected with her kids, Jheri went full nurture — housing two, visiting the one in the home and doing the books (she has been a teacher, accountant and other professions over her working life) for the third.

Jheri may kvetch about “My nerves” (the older Southern lady’s favorite complaint), but she keeps looking on the sunny side, modeling her 74 year old post-transition bod in a swimsuit, singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

The film could use more of Jheri’s struggle, the years when the wrong bar pickup could end in “murder,” to take some of the edge off her narcissism. That ceases being cute after about twenty minutes.

Her family is pretty acceptant in the film’s opening, more so by the final credits. How’s she taken by her church? Her neighbors? Where are her friends?

It’s as in Longinotto chose to leave those queries out, because she and we probably figure we know the answers. But maybe we don’t.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: TV-14, sexual subject matter

Cast: Jheri Jones, Wade Jones, Brad Jones, Trevor Jones, Trent Jones,

Credits:Directed by Moby Longinotto . A Bunny Lake release.

Running time: 1:20

 

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