Yeardley Smith has given voice to Lisa Simpson for more than 30 years, but she's also given voice to the type of characters whose stories aren't often told on film -- most recently, a Black transgender woman and a white cisgender boy who form an unexpected friendship in Gossamer Folds.
Of course, she literally voices the smartest, most perceptive member of the Simpson family, but with Gossamer Folds, she has enabled the storytelling as a producer of the film, which is screening online today via the Bentonville Film Festival, which has gone virtual this year, and will be at other virtual festivals soon.
"It was love at first read," Smith says of the script by Bridget Flanery, which came to her through her friend Adam Carl; she and Ben Cornwell have a production company, Paperclip Ltd. "I'm not an easy sell -- I'm kind of grumpy and jaded sometimes," she adds, but she found Gossamer Folds irresistible. The company usually matches films up with funders, but Smith and Cornwell loved this one so much that they decided Paperclip had to finance it.
It's easy to see why they loved it. The charming, touching movie, taking place in the summer of 1986 and directed by Lisa Donato, stars trans actress Alexandra Grey, a stunningly talented veteran of projects including Transparent, Empire, and, recently, The Alienist: Angel of Darkness, in which she played the intersex character Alice. She portrays Gossamer, who lives in a sleepy suburb of Kansas City and creates costumes for K.C. drag shows, but longs to escape to New York and become a fashion designer.
She has new next-door neighbors, a family just relocated from the city (we eventually learn it's in hopes that the father will end his extramarital affair): mom Frannie (Sprague Grayen), dad Billy (Shane West), and their 10-year-old son, Tate, played by the amazing Jackson Robert Scott, who first made his mark in the 2017 remake of Stephen King's It. Tate is bright and curious (he carries a pocket dictionary wherever he goes so he can look up words) but lonely and bored in the suburban town.
He is initially wary of Gossamer -- his father calls her "the deviant next door" and worse -- but she eventually wins him over, and the story of their friendship is sweet without ever being treacly, and it evokes both laughter and tears. It does not shy away from showing the difficulties of being transgender in a time and place where acceptance is rare, but it's not a film about victimization, and it portrays both Gossamer's strengths and her vulnerabilities.
Jackson Robert Scott as Tate, with his omnipresent dictionary
Gossamer lives with her widowed father, Edward, an author and retired professor who doesn't quite understand his daughter -- he sometimes uses a male name and pronouns for her -- but he loves her and he's trying, unlike her siblings, who have moved away and are not seen but spoken of. Franklin Ojeda Smith is stellar in the role.
Others in the film's world include Gossamer's friends Jimbo (Ethan Suplee), an unpretentious and affable man (ostensibly cisgender), and Diana (Jen Richards, another Transparent alum), a sympathetic trans woman; friendly neighbor Maybelle (Brenda Currin), who thinks she's doing everyone a favor by bringing them her awful tuna casserole (Tate calls it "heinous"); and Phyllis (Smith), the exacting owner of the bridal shop where Frannie works.
Given these descriptions, Gossamer Folds might sound like a stereotypical Hallmark movie filled with quirky and lovable small-town characters, but it's far from that. It's a nuanced exploration of childhood, identity, friendship, and family dynamics, especially the formation of found families. Its characters are multilayered, imperfect, and evolving.
Gossamer (Alexandra Grey, right) with friend Jimbo (Ethan Suplee)
When Grey received the script from her management, her reaction was similar to Smith's. "I just fell in love with the character immediately," she says. "So much of Gossamer mirrored my own real life" -- in being a Black trans woman, dealing with a lack of family acceptance, and longing for a life other than the one she's leading, the Chicago native adds.
Some other actresses auditioned for the role, but Grey was the front-runner right off the bat, Smith says. "Nobody even came close," she says. "She was perfect for this role."
Screenwriter Flanery and director Donato are both cisgender women -- Flanery straight, Donato queer -- but Grey says they did a good job of crafting a film with a trans protagonist. A GLAAD staffer offered advice during preproduction, and director of photography Ava Benjamin Shorr is a trans woman. It's the first produced screenplay for Flanery, who has extensive acting credits (Will & Grace, Sabrina the Teenage Witch), and it's the first feature directed by Donato, who's written, produced, and directed several short films and co-wrote the 2017 lesbian-themed feature Signature Move with the film's star, Fawzia Mirza.
Both Smith and Grey recognize the importance of telling stories of trans people, and LGBTQ+ people generally. "We wanted to sort of demonstrate that hate is taught, and Tate rejects this," Smith says. Grey adds that she hopes audiences "see that love is love." Gossamer, the actress says, is "just a human being, and this young kid loved her when no one else did."
Smith, a straight cisgender woman, has been an LGBTQ+ ally for years. Her activism first coalesced around the court battle against Proposition 8, the voter-approved ballot measure that revoked marriage equality in California until it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Her friend Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Milk, asked her to get involved. "It was just a total no-brainer for me to support this cause," she said. Last year she received the Human Rights Campaign's National Leadership Award, and Grey honored her on Instagram:
During the pandemic-related shutdown of most film and TV production, Smith has been able to continue working on The Simpsons remotely. "The beauty of animation is they're very crafty about figuring out how we can record," she says. She feels the show, now in its 32nd season, has moved the needle on LGBTQ+ acceptance "in our own imperfect way," with Homer Simpson representing the uninformed, guest stars such as John Waters imparting information, and gay man Waylon Smithers being part of Springfield's tapestry. She's also working on her popular true-crime podcast, Small Town Dicks, and Paperclip is continuing to develop projects so it can be ready when the lockdown is over.
Grey wrapped a project right before the lockdown, but she can't talk about it yet, and she had another production that was halted by the health crisis. Meanwhile she's staying creative and auditioning for roles, she says.
Gossamer Folds is having several virtual festival screenings, and Smith and her colleagues hope to find a distributor for the film. It went online for the virtual Bentonville Film Festival, out of Arkansas, beginning this morning at midnight Central time; it will be available to regional viewers for 24 hours from that point, and there will be a Q&A Friday from 3 to 3:30 p.m. Central. It's also set for a virtual screening for Texans through the Women Texas Film Festival starting Thursday at 5 p.m. Central and continuing for three days. And it will be part of Los Angeles's Outfest, available online for 72 hours beginning August 20. Watch a trailer here.