Levi: Becoming Himself
(Canada, 44 min.)
Dir. Shannon Kaplun
Levi Nahirney shares his journey to self-actualization in a documentary that bears his name. Levi: Becoming Himself is a candid portrait of one Vietnamese-Canadian’s experience as a transgender male. The 19-year-old advocate explains to director Shannon Kaplun how he navigates the process of understanding his sexuality and expressing his identity in a world in which many people still lack the awareness, understanding, and language to embrace trans-people. Moreover, as a twin, adoptee, and person of colour in Canada, Levi’s experience takes hold in a multifaceted identity. Levi: Becoming Himself shares the ways in which different aspects of one’s identity are intimately linked as Levi and his family open up and invite others into the conversation.
Although a small but significant group of docs have relayed the experiences of young people as they undergo their transitions (see This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous or Girl Inside for notable examples), Becoming Himself feels like a first for linking the discussion to Levi’s status as a twin, immigrant, and adoptee. His sister, Kailyn, appears in the doc in contemporary interviews along with a 2013 interview shot by a family friend that comprises much of the doc. Kailyn, who is cisgender and heterosexual, shares her brother’s openness and candour. The siblings admit that Levi’s transition sparked a period of hypersexualised behaviour for both of them as he presented as hyper-masculine and Kailyn doubled down on her femininity to quash any questions that others had about her sexuality.
Admittedly, the temporary distance that Levi’s transition put between the twins is one aspect that Becoming Himself could explore further. (As a twin whose brother came out before I had any understanding of who I was, I wanted to hear more from both siblings on this topic.) Adolescence is confusing enough as it is and the doc hints at the ways in which coming out can be doubly challenging when one loses one’s closest support. Kaplun presents ample footage of a loving and supporting family, though, as Levi and Kailyn grew under the guidance of incredibly open, empathetic, and understanding parents who were there for both of them.
Moreover, the parents offer valuable perspectives about the early age in which Levi expressed gender dysphoria. They recall his discomfort with dresses and share how they quickly abandoned the kitschy habit of bedecking twins in similar clothes, as Kailyn was perfectly happy in a dress while Levi preferred pants all the way. (Except the time they paid him twenty bucks to wear a flower girl dress for a wedding.) Similarly, his mom tells how a five-year-old Levi asked the question directly. “Why I am not a boy?” wondered the small child in what became an annual refrain. Becoming Himself is especially appreciated with its portrait of children’s ability to understand their gender identities from an early age as Levi demonstrates remarkable maturity as he articulates his journey in interviews both old and new.
Equally notable is the film’s look at Levi’s understanding of himself as a Vietnamese-Canadian. The twins share their struggle to belong, but the doc notes how their parents, who are white, created support circles with friends and other families so that the kids could learn their language and understand the roots. Although Becoming Himself somewhat plays it safe here, there is an implied recognition through Levi’s ability to discuss diverse aspects of his identity that there is much need for education and advocacy for transgender rights worldwide. (Beyond noting that his biological mother chided him for looking too butch, the doc doesn’t quite address the fact that Levi’s life as a transgender male could have been very different had he grow up in Vietnam.)
Levi: Becoming Himself is, above all, a story of love. It’s a touching family portrait, and an inspiring character study. Through Levi’s tale, Becoming Himself offers a message of hope for other trans youths and their families.
Levi: Becoming Himself is now streaming on CBC Gem and airs on CBC July 17.