Director Lisa Donato’s Gossamer Folds focuses on the heartwarming friendship between two Kansas City suburban neighbours in 1986. When his parents decide to move the family away from the city in an attempt to salvage their marriage, ten year-old Tate (Jackson Robert Scott) is ordered by his prejudiced father Billy (a suitably menacing Shane West) to stay away from the house next door. It’s inhabited by Gossamer (Alexandra Grey), a beautiful twenty-something seamstress with a penchant for David Bowie, who happens to be a Black trans woman, something that causes Billy much discomfort.
As the marriage deteriorates further, Billy moves out leaving sole childcare duties to Tate’s struggling mother Frannie (Sprague Grayden). Much to the disapproval of her prickly boss Phyllis (a delectably frosty Yeardley Smith), Frannie frequently takes Tate to the wedding dress shop where she works until she receives an ultimatum from Phyllis; find someone to leave the boy with or find another job. Left with no other option she reluctantly leaves Tate in the care of Gossamer and her father (Franklin Ojeda Smith). Innately curious, Tate is seldom seen without his trusty Webster’s dictionary to look up any unfamiliar words the adults around him use. He’s unable to find the homophobic and transphobic words Billy uses to refer to Gossamer though, and unlike his father Tate has a tender openness towards her, untarnished by any preconceptions, and the two soon become close.
There’s a natural chemistry between Scott and Grey that’s a delight to behold, and although given the age difference it is something of an odd couple pairing, it never feels forced. Despite his relatively short screen time in the recent It movies as the ill-fated Georgie, Scott made an emotionally resonant impact that echoed throughout both of those films and here he delivers on that promise in this lead role opposite Grey with a rich, engaging performance; bright eyed, with an open, expressive face. Much of the appeal of the film is down to Alexandra Grey’s nuanced and charismatic performance as Gossamer, and the depiction of her friendship with Tate. The trauma and challenges she’s clearly faced in her life in order to be her true self, particularly given the time period and geographical location, are left unspoken for much of the film, but Grey conveys her character’s history in every frame. In fact one of the film’s most moving scenes sees Gossamer sitting alone in her car and involves no dialogue at all.
When Gossamer’s experience is finally explicitly spoken about to her friend Jimbo (Ethan Suplee) it comes in an emotionally explosive scene, insightfully and economically written by screenwriter Bridget Flanery, with potent delivery to match; “None of you have any idea what I got to go through on a daily basis”, she says, “just to live my life, just to be myself.” When we learn that a trans friend of Gossamer’s has been attacked, the incident and its aftermath largely remain off-screen, but remind us of the constant threat Gossamer is living under, making her strength all the more poignant. Refreshingly though Flanery’s delicate, character-driven screenplay doesn’t focus on Gossamer’s struggles as a trans woman, and though others around her might want to define her by her transness, the film never does. While Gossamer’s father continues to misgender her, Franklin Ojeda Smith conveys an affecting paternal compassion, despite his refusal to accept her for who she truly is. There’s also a touching relationship between Gossamer and her friend Diana (Jen Richards, the young Anna Madrigal from Tales of the City). Although not much screen time is dedicated to them together, their deep connection is immediately clear; they are part of each others chosen family.
Beautifully photographed throughout by Ava Benjamin Shorr, with intimate, frequently handheld camerawork, as Gossamer and Tate become closer a visual motif emerges that sees them surrounded by firelies. Visually stunning, it radiates with the hope and light that each of these characters bring to each other’s lives. The film’s soundtrack features a soulful original song, Fireflies, performed by Sarah McLachlan and written by her specifically for the movie along with Pierre Marchand, with lyrics LGBTQ folks long to hear from those they love like ‘I’ll always take you as you are’ and ‘perfect just the way you are’.
While television, with particular credit to Pose, has offered us an array of diverse portrayals of trans women of colour and introduced audiences to some impressive talent, complex and meaningful trans representation, especially Black trans female characters, remains all too infrequent in feature films. The layered, compellingly portrayed character of Gossamer is something to be celebrated and will hopefully inspire other filmmakers to deliver more Black trans women front and centre on the big screen.
By James Kleinmann
Gossamer Folds is currently playing as part of the 2020 Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival which can be accessed via OutfestLA2020.com along with a cast and filmmaker Q&A.