LIFF 2018 Special Review: Venus

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After struggling with gender identity, Punjabi Canadian Sid (Debargo Sanyal) finally makes the decision to live a life as a transgender woman outside the home, and to undergo the process of gender transition. Sid, born male, has always known she was a woman, but never took the step of dressing like one in public until making this important decision. As fate would have it, at the same time that Sid is planning for her new future and taking steps towards living her life fully as a woman, she meets Ralph (Jamie Meyers), a teenaged boy who, when confronted by Sid as to why he’s hanging around her suddenly, reveals that Sid is his father – Sid was involved, briefly, with Ralph’s mother (Amber Goldfarb), and Ralph, it seems, was the result.

Director Eisha Marjara (Desperately Seeking Helen) brings much warmth and wit to Venus. As much an exploration of modern, reconstituted family life and identity in a broader sense as it is about its transgender subject, the film could easily have fallen into stereotypes and given us typical, pat characters and situations. Instead, we have Sid, who has known her identity for a long time (her mother comments that for Halloween one year, Sid wanted to be a cowgirl, and Sid’s mother made the costume out of one of her saris), but hasn’t lived it fully. There’s Sid’s ex-partner (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), who wants to rekindle their romance, but still finds himself unwilling to share their relationship out in the open, especially with his own family. There’s Ralph, at that age where he really needs a father figure, but who wants that kind of relationship from his biological father rather than his stepfather. Sid’s mother is, on the one hand, accepting of Sid, and, yet, wishes she could have her son back – wanting the parameters of her own identity as a mother of a son who will marry and give her grandchildren to remain intact, even as she helps Sid alter women’s clothing to fit better and offers her a bottle of nail polish she got as a two-for-one deal. Sid’s father is, in the film’s early stages, largely silent, leading us to believe, perhaps, that he is merely tolerating Sid, but as the film progresses we realize he has accepted Sid for who she is, and is helping his wife face up to Sid’s reality.

I can’t help wishing, though, that a film that explores issues of identity hadn’t stripped itself of its Canadian setting so markedly – although that does, I suppose, allow the joke about hormones in milk (they are banned in Canada) to pass. And I was a little troubled at the fact that Sid forges this relationship with her son based purely on Ralph’s reading of his mother’s diary, and that he doesn’t make an effort, especially once he realizes that Ralph is avoiding raising the issue with his mother, to contact Ralph’s mother sooner than he does and make her aware of the growing relationship between them.

Venus does so much that is interesting in exploring Sid and the relationships she has with those around her, that it’s disappointing that the writing and acting is, at times, a bit stilted and awkward, and the pacing flags in the latter part of the film. But I appreciated that the film didn’t merely try to tick off boxes on the way to delivering a message – every time I braced myself for something to happen, the film surprised me by doing something different than I expected it would. In fact, I’m not even sure the film has a message, other than life is messy and complicated, family is messy and complicated, and we all – no matter what our gender – muddle through somehow as we try to figure out who we are and what our place in the world is. Sid’s transition is, of course, probably the most important and complicated step in her journey, but although it sits at the centre of who she is in this particular moment, it’s also not all there is to Sid. Instead, it’s about who Sid is in relation to a whole circle of people in her life, whether at work, the friends she hangs out with, her boyfriend, her parents, her son, and – most of all — how she stays true to herself.

Venus is the closing night film at the London festival this year, which will screen on at BFI SOUTHBANK on Friday, June 29th, then go on to showcase in Manchester on June 30th and in Birmingham on July 1st.

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