A Deal with the Universe is a deeply personal documentary constructed of video diary footage shot over the course of more than a decade. We follow trans man Jason Barker, a former programmer at the BFI Flare London LGBTQ Film Festival (where the film was an audience favourite at the 2018 edition) and his partner Tracey as they focus on becoming parents.
Early in the film as Tracey fights breast cancer and undergoes a mastectomy, she shares her ordeal on camera. This frankness in the couple’s feelings and the visual imagery continues as Jason attempts to become pregnant. We don’t just hear about urine samples and injections we see them on screen, it feels like no details are left out, helping to create a sense that we are going through this experience with them.
The film goes beyond intimacy to the point that I felt like these weren’t just documentary subjects, but close friends who’d invited me into their lives and who I started to care deeply about.
Despite the struggles that the couple goes through in the lengthy process of trying to become parents, both maintain a sense of humour, so much so in fact that it’s no surprise when Jason tries his hand at comedy. In one sequence we see footage of Jason on stage doing a stand-up routine about “using a men’s changing room when you don’t have a penis.” Comparing women’s changing rooms he concludes that they’re “totally different worlds…totally different culture,” for one thing, he observes, “men wear their towels like a skirt.” At one point during his stand-up set Jason jokes that he’s bad at being trans. Both on and off-stage he questions gender as a concept. As he continues to attempt to become pregnant the film raises questions about definitions of gender and identity.
We’re introduced to Jason’s mother, who in one scene wants him to lower his voice when he’s talking about being trans because she’s concerned the neighbours are eavesdropping over the garden fence. Later there’s a more joyful moment of parental love and acceptance as Jason and his mum tap-dance together in the kitchen.
The film’s homemade aesthetic adds to the sense of intimacy, while its sparse, achingly beautiful score by Hutch Demouilpied is sparingly used throughout and never distracts or attempts to manipulate as with many documentaries, but provides a sense of narrative cohesion.
In another director’s hands this film might have ended up fetishising or overdramatising the situation of a trans man attempting to get pregnant. With Jason Barker directing himself, the film remains a compelling but down to earth, relatable human experience.
Even in moments of despair the camera stays on. There must have been many times when Tracey and Jason would have preferred not to have a camera pointing at themselves, but realised the importance of documenting their story. As Tracey and Jason talk to their camera it never feels contrived, and they don’t pull any punches. One scene following a miscarriage is a heartbreaking watch, but beautiful in its raw honesty.
The couple’s scene-stealing cat, loudly purring and pulling focus, deserves a mention here too.
A Deal with the Universe is a moving, ultimately joyous celebration of life with all the hopes, dreams, disappointments and struggles we all experience.
By James Kleinmann
A Deal with the Universe is available on VOD and DVD now in the UK and VOD via Amazon and Vimeo in the USA.