‘Hummingbirds’ Is a Different Kind of Queer Teen Documentary

Four years ago, one of my favorite documentaries ever, Always Amber, began its festival run. The cis directors had set out to make a film about trans teens today by following a nonbinary kid named Amber as they navigated the early stages of their social and medical transitions. Wise enough to trust Amber and their friends to lead the story — and even film footage on their own — the documentary morphed away from this overt gender focus to instead center Amber’s complicated friendship with another transmasculine person.

There were still important gender-related moments — including a doctor appointment about top surgery — but the strength of the film is that it doesn’t fight Amber’s teenagehood, their personhood, and the ways gender intersects with the day-to-day life of a kid whose biggest concerns are friendships and crushes.

That film is finally available to watch on Tubi, but for years it was impossible to find. The aspects that made it so wonderful also made it uncategorizable to distributors and platforms who would’ve been more enthusiastic to get a straight forward portrayal of youth gender transition.

I thought about Always Amber as I watched the new documentary Hummingbirds. While Always Amber was made by outsiders wise enough to trust their subjects, Hummingbirds is directed by its subjects, Silvia Del Carmen Castaños and Estefanía “Beba” Contreras. It’s a natural and exciting evolution while maintaining the same combination of friendship, youthful exuberance, and a casual political backdrop.

Taking place over the summer of 2019 in the border town of Laredo, Texas, the documentary follows Silvia and Beba as they hang out and ponder their futures. Silvia was born in the U.S. but their parents are undocumented; Beba herself is undocumented and waiting on a visa application so she can work. They discuss their immigration status and their complicated relationships to the U.S. and Mexico the same way they discuss any aspect of their lives. This approach is also taken with discussions of gender and sexuality and abortion.

They have another friend who is a trans woman who they film with the same love and personal gaze as they film themselves and each other. During one notable sequence, they carry out a little be gay do crimes of changing a neighbor’s lawn sign from “Pray to End Abortion” to “Pray 4 Legal Abortion.” One of them quips that the cops will announce: suspects are two small males and one very tall female.

Silvia and Beba and their friends are fun to hang around even as their lives contain some of the challenges brought by their identities in our unjust country. Because they are themselves the authorial voice of the piece, it honors these challenges without centering them. Our evil immigration system impacts their lives, but so does their friendship with each other. Struggle does not inherently hold more import than comfort and freedom and rebellion and escape.

It’s special to hear them openly discuss their abortions; it’s also special to watch them play music or get their hair shaved off. It’s special to watch them laugh and run around their town.

With a tight edit and gorgeous cinematography, Hummingbirds is the best kind of low-key documentary. Its power is subtle, its pleasures many. I want more portraits of young queer teens made by young queer teens — especially portraits this artful and moving.

Hummingbirds is now streaming for free on PBS.com.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 566 articles for us.


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