'Venus' Review: A Delightful, Cross-Cultural Transgender Comedy [New York Indian Film Festival]

I'm going to spoil Venus for you up front: it's a film that ends happily.

This isn't so much a spoiler, though, as much as it is a reassurance of what becomes amply clear mere minutes in. It's a family comedy – in tone, structure and everything else – and thus, it's a queer narrative that doesn't wallow in the misery of its protagonist. Things don't often end well for queer women in fiction (for trans women especially), and so a film that not only centers a trans woman, but does so this lovingly, is undoubtedly worth noting. What's more, it exists at the nexus of Canada's queer and Punjabi-immigrant cultures, bringing with it not only a whole host of quirks, but the requisite nuances therein.

Indo-Canadian trans woman Sid Gill (Debargo Sanyal) discovers the teenage Caucasian son she fathered when she identified as a man in her teen years. She doesn't have the bandwidth to compartmentalize this disruption. Her son Ralph, well... Ralph wants to be more Indian than Sid has ever allowed herself to be, whether in terms of music or language or food. It is, quite simply, a delight.

Sid, still presenting as male whenever she visits home, has just about gotten her parents around to the idea of her dating a man. The conversation about their "gay son" coming out as a woman is still far off in the distance. Her mother (Zena Darawalla) is an immigrant from Punjab whose put-on smile is in search of a real one. Her father (Gordon Warnecke) is a British Indian with a penchant for tracksuits. They still want a traditional family, or rather, one as traditional as possible.

Sid has no interest in being set up with a woman of her parents' choosing. She's a few months from beginning her transition via hormones, so she likely won't have to stay in the closet for long. She even experiments with presenting as herself every once in a while, strutting out of stores in dresses and high heels that suit her much more than the ill-fitting trousers she wears to work. She's getting over her breakup with Daniel (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), a cisgender man who had to keep things with her on the down-low, and her best friends (a fellow trans woman and her nonbinary partner) are about to tie the knot. Things could start feeling a little more, well, normal soon, despite her family's insistence on something arranged, and the prospect is calming. That is, until a white teen with a distinctly thick Punjabi brow begins following Sid to work.

Young Ralph (Jamie Mayers), a skater with a shy cadence, is in search of his biological father. What he finds however, after tracking down his mother's high school sweetheart behind her back, is a woman who isn't quite sure what to do with him. A kid is the last thing Sid needs just as her life is beginning to settle (her ex finally returning to her certainly doesn't un-complicate things), but young Ralph, a newly awakened samosa fiend, seems in need of guidance. His stepfather is aloof and he can't quite seem to connect with his mom, so Sid has no choice but to accept the imposition of a fourteen year old using her razors to shave.

Sid coming out as a woman to her parents doesn't go quite as planned – their shock is unsurprising, but it's never framed as ugly – so perhaps Ralph's sudden appearance is a blessing in disguise. Sid's parents want grandkids, and while Ralph isn't quite what they had in mind, he's shown enough curiosity in Punjabi music to be an honorary Gill. Though of course, as Ralph is off getting to know an entirely new family – Sid, her boyfriend Daniel, and two territorial grandparents who can't seem to feed him enough – Ralph's mum and dad have no idea where the boy's snuck off to, and it's only a matter of time before they find out.

Despite its occasionally stilted dialogue, often delivered with hesitance – the film doesn't quite have the weight to fill its silences – Venus builds its momentum admirably. The film's group scenes depend too heavily on its actors' words, tasked with embodying family dynamics as the camera refuses to complement their efforts. Though while the individual jokes seem to land awkwardly, the film is still funny through and through because of what remains unsaid, disguised by a physical awkwardness that works in its favour.

The film is carried mostly by the performance of Debargo Sanyal who, while not a trans woman himself (a continued problem in casting, though for what it's worth, Sanyal did win "Best Trans Performance" at Germany's Transgender Film Festival) imbues Sid with the kind of interior life that cisgender actors often fail to when it comes to playing trans characters. Sanyal hides a certain sweetness behind Sid's hardened exterior, like it's a defense mechanism to the character's constant heartbreak. When the chiseled Daniel returns and Sid lowers her guard, there's a sense of comfort and familiarity to their on-screen dynamic – the kind often reserved for cisgender screen couples – which is precisely why it hurts all the more when it seems like Daniel isn't ready to introduce Sid to his family because of who they are, and because of who she is.

The secret to Venus is perhaps its framing of conflict. Daniel isn't a bad guy. He's just in a tough familial position that happens to hurt Sid in the process. Sid's parents aren't presented as bad people. They accept Sid in whatever way they're able to understand. And Ralph isn't trying to be a pain. He's just a kid in search for something he knows is missing, whether it's a father or a culture or something yet unexplored. Every character in the film is fundamentally good. While they rub up against each other in ways that verge on heartbreaking, Venus remains almost miraculously optimistic.

The film never sacrifices Sid's happiness, or rather her desire to be happy, in order to forgive well-meaning slights, but none of its drama (and certainly none of its comedy) is born out of hatred or bigotry, or even any kind of selfishness. Ultimately, it's a story about imperfect people who, at their core, want to be good to one another but don't quite have the tools to do so. And what makes this modern-family frenzy feel extra warm and fuzzy is the fact that they're willing to figure things out together.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10