Trans lives matter, and trans creatives are just as important on screen as they are behind the camera. This is especially true for movies exploring gender and transness (cue a bombastic side-eye towards the general direction of The Danish Girl writer and director). After all, trans people are in the best position to tell their own stories.
But not all movies by transgender filmmakers focus on those issues, the same way cisgender directors draw inspiration from other aspects of their lives. And really, that’s for everybody’s benefit: When we include marginalized voices in any conversation and support transgender artists on a narrative level, we’re able to enjoy new perspectives we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Though transgender writers and directors are still an underrepresented demographic in the industry, the few we do have on deck have given us some wonderful films to enjoy. Here are 9 that I would say are must-sees.
The Matrix Series (1999, 2003, 2003, 2021)
Writer-Directors: Lana and Lilly Wachowski
Trans sisters Lana and Lilly Wachowski are probably the most famous transgender filmmakers today. Though the original Matrix films premiered before either sister came out as transgender, the sci-fi movies have a fascinating trans and queer subtext that stays with you long after you’ve finished watching them.
They’re also some of the most exciting and ambitious sci-fi movies, period, which is how The Matrix has continued to be an iconic part of pop culture since the first film was released in 1999.
In it, computer programmer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) finds out that his reality is a lie. The latest installment, 2021’s The Matrix Resurrections, was co-written, produced, and directed by Lana and is a timely and heartfelt addition to the canon.
It’s just a shame that the alt-right community has co-opted The Matrix’s message. Lilly has a few choice words for it, but the rest of us can help by enjoying the films and seeing them for what they are: a trans allegory by two transgender filmmakers who universalized a trans experience in one of cinema’s greatest film franchises.
Where to watch The Matrix films: HBO Max and Peacock TV.
Writer-Directors: Lana and Lilly Wachowski
Before they made The Matrix films, Lana and Lilly Wachowski first debuted with their neo-noir thriller Bound (1996). Smart, stylish, and sultry, it’s one of the most explicitly queer titles from the trans sisters (aside from the fantastically queer Sense8).
In it, Gina Gershon’s Corky, an ex-con hired to renovate an apartment, meets Jennifer Tilly’s Violet, the girlfriend of the mobster next door. The instant attraction is mutual, and the two hatch a plan to escape with 2 million dollars.
Small spoiler for wary Sapphics: In this movie, the lesbians get a happy ending.
Where to watch Bound: Amazon Prime Video, Paramount Plus, and the Criterion Channel.
Lingua Franca (2019)
Writer-Director: Isabel Sandoval
Writer-director Isabel Sandoval also stars in her film Lingua Franca (2019), an intimate drama that follows an undocumented Filipina trans woman in the Trump Era.
In Lingua Franca, Sandoval plays Olivia, a live-in caregiver for an elderly Russian woman in Brighton Beach. Her earnings go towards her family back home in the Philippines and to Matthew, an American she hopes to marry in order to secure a green card. The problem is that she finds herself romantically involved with Olga’s adult grandson, Alex.
Lyrical, understated, and subversive in its sensuality, the film is a must-watch for fans of not just queer cinema but fans of outstanding Asian directors of our time.
Where to watch Lingua Franca: Netflix.
The True Adventures of Wolfboy (2019)
Writer: Olivia Dufault
Directed by Martin Krejčí and written by Olivia Dufault, The True Adventures of Wolfboy (2019) tells the story of Paul (Jaeden Martell), the titular wolf-boy who runs away from home in search of his mother and of answers.
Along the way, he meets aspiring singer Aristiana (Sophie Giannamore), who becomes his companion. Worried about how the world sees him, Paul struggles with self-acceptance — a journey that Aristiana, a trans girl, has completed herself.
A picturesque coming-of-age adventure, the film explores a side of transitioning that is rarely discussed in today’s wildly misinformed moral panics over trans children. Dufault writes about the trans experience from the inside out, and Giannamore, a trans actress, embodies it masterfully.
Overall, it’s a charming, well-made film that just goes to show how trans stories are all the more compelling when trans people are the ones telling them.
Where to watch The True Adventures of Wolfboy: The Roku Channel, Tubi TV, and Pluto TV.
Drunktown’s Finest (2014)
Writer-Director: Sydney Freeland
Writer-director Sydney Freeland’s debut feature film, Drunktown’s Finest (2014), tells the story of three young people from Freeland’s hometown of Gallup, New Mexico, once called “Drunktown, USA” because of its high number of alcohol-related deaths.
In it, Nizhoni (Morningstar Angeline) returns to Gallup to seek out her birth parents before she heads off to college; Sickboy (Jeremiah Bitsui) hopes to provide for his soon-to-be-born child; and Felixxia (Carmen Moore), a trans woman, dreams of becoming a model.
Freeland takes her time in exploring each of her three leads’ stories, painting a picture of life in Gallup.
Where to watch Drunktown’s Finest: Apple TV, Vudu, and Amazon Prime Video.
Deidra & Laney Rob a Train (2017)
Director: Sydney Freeland
Where Sydney Freeland’s Drunktown’s Finest (2014) and Emmy-nominated series Her Story more directly deal with the trans experience, this time around, she offers something completely different.
The plot of Deidra & Laney Rob a Train (2017) is exactly what it sounds like, except that the two protagonists don’t just rob a train — they rob several.
In it, sisters Deidra (Ashleigh Murray) and Laney (Rachel Crow) are left to fend for themselves when their mother, Marigold (Danielle Nicolet), is imprisoned. To bail her out of jail and keep Laney and their younger brother Jet from being placed into foster care, Deidra hatches a plan.
The film feels like a Disney Channel movie, except the kids do actual crimes, and there is a sharper political point of view on poverty in America. It’s warm, funny, and features a pretty strong cast that doesn’t skip a beat — a rare Netflix original that’s actually good. It’s also pretty nice to see a trans filmmaker clearly having fun behind the camera.
Where to watch Deidra & Laney Rob a Train: Netflix.
Strong Island (2017)
Director: Yance Ford
In this unflinching, tragic, and deeply personal documentary, Yance Ford examines the 1992 murder of his brother William, a 24-year-old Black teacher in New York City, as well as its lingering aftermath. His killer, Mark Reilly, was a 19-year-old white mechanic who claimed self-defense — even though William was unarmed.
It feels like a news story from the last few weeks, not in 1992, and that in itself feels like another tragedy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, an all-white grand jury let Reilly walk free.
Strong Island (2017) is Ford’s debut film after a decorated tenure as a series producer at PBS. It went on to be nominated for the Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards and won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Storytelling at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Ford also became the first transgender man — and the first Black transgender person — to win an Emmy.
Where to watch Strong Island: Netflix.
By Hook or by Crook (2001)
Writer-Directors: Silas Howard and Harry Dodge
By Hook Or By Crook (2001) is a queer low-budget darling of a road-trip film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before it went on to win awards at the LA Outfest, the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, the Paris Lesbian Film Festival, Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, and the SXSW Film Festival.
Written, directed by, and starring two trans men, the film follows Shy (Silas Howard), a transgender man who leaves his small town home after his father’s death and meets Valentine (Harry Dodge), who is in search of his birth mother. They become literal partners in crime as they struggle to stay afloat and learn to better understand themselves and the world.
The story provides a curious window into what it meant to be queer two decades ago — and a reminder of not just how important queer camaraderie can be but also how far we’ve come and still have to go.
Where to watch By Hook Or By Crook: Amazon Prime Video
Framing Agnes (2022)
Writer-Director: Chase Joynt
Over the course of their research on transgender histories, writer-director Chase Joynt and sociologist Kristen Schilt pried open an old drawer at the UCLA Gender Archives to find decades-old case files of a trans woman, Agnes Torres. In the 1950s, she had lied about being intersex in order to receive gender-affirming surgery.
But there was more, and Joynt decided that he needed to tell the story of Agnes and five other transgender people who were the subjects of Dr. Harold Garfinkel’s gender health research.
To create Framing Agnes (2022), Joynt gathered an array of remarkable trans talent — among them Zachary Drucker (of Transparent fame), Max Wolf Valerio (poet and author), newcomer Stephen Ira, Angelica Ross (from Pose), Silas Howard (writer-director, see above), and Jen Richards (Mrs. Fletcher) — and had them reenact never-before-seen transcripts from the UCLA Gender Clinic.
The result is an ambitious documentary that is curious, empathetic, and critical about visibility, representation, and acceptance, switching from black-and-white talk show imagery to crisp, present-day video and back. Trans historian Jules Gill-Peterson is a gem in this, too.
In today’s political climate, Framing Agnes is essential viewing.
Where to watch Framing Agnes: The Roku Channel and Amazon Prime Video.