Transamerica is much like its central character—hard to define. The story follows an in-progress transsexual named Bree (Felicity Huffman) whose therapist (Elizabeth Pena) withholds approval for her final, upcoming surgery until Bree reconnects with her recently discovered son (Kevin Zegers). The film is one part light comedy, one part dramatic character study and one part road movie, among others. One thing it never becomes, fortunately, is a propaganda piece. Rather than hitting us over the head with the issues at hand, the film treats them as something understood. Transsexual lingo is used casually and made accessible, and the unique challenges that accompany this transformation are made all the more potent because they are handled so subtly.
Written and directed by Duncan Tucker, Transamerica, succeeds in many ways because it is so eclectic. It shows us a world we are largely unfamiliar with, but doesn’t ask the audience for its permission and acceptance. Instead, it wins us over by giving us engaging characters. Tucker is a relative newcomer (his only previous credit is a short in the little-seen gay indie compilation film, Boys to Men), and the film is not without its rough edges, but the unique perspective makes the film compelling throughout.
Early on in Transamerica, I couldn’t help shaking the knowledge that Felicity Huffman is already a woman—and that the film is asking us to buy her as a man who has had everything done but the final surgery—genital alteration. Huffman’s voice, makeup and physicality are all well executed adjustments to make us believe that this is a woman in progress, yet part of me couldn’t help wondering why they hadn’t cast a man in this part. As the film progressed, however, I realized that part of the point that the film was making was that Bree was already a woman and always had been. It’s heady, deep-thoughts kind of material, but it’s what makes the film unique.
Huffman, in her Oscar-nominated performance, is terrific—not for the gender-bending aspects of the performance (which are fine), but because she is such a terrific tragic-comedienne. Huffman, easily the best of the Desperate Housewives, excels at balancing humor and sadness in ways that few actresses can. Part of the fun of her performance is that Bree is kind of a priss; conservative in a way that makes for a good odd-couple pairing when she is reunited with her wild child son. Conversely, Huffman shows the profound sadness and loneliness of her character in way that is touching and believable.
Zegers (a grown up child star from the Air Bud movies) is a good match for her as Bree’s son, a junkie and a street hustler whose biggest dream is to become a gay porn star. Zegers is kind of a sleazy version of Leonardo DiCaprio here, and the actor isn’t afraid of showing his character’s less honorable traits. As the film progresses, he and Huffman build an engaging, believable rapport that is crucial to the story.
Writer-director Tucker is less successful in painting his supporting characters. The one exception is Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves) who’s wonderful in a small romantic subplot. Pena is fine, but underused as the therapist who has no personality except a kind of heart-of-gold maternity. The real missteps are in Bree’s family, who show up late in the film. Mom is played by Fionnula Flanagan, an Irish actress who’s been good in many past roles (most notably as the spooky housekeeper in The Others). Here, she plays a garish, middle-aged wasp-y stereotype, complete with dyed blonde hair and an overdone tan. Her performance is grating and obnoxious, an unfortunate caricature in a film that tries so hard to portray real people. Sis (Carrie Preston) is a kind of sitcom sidekick and Dad (played by Burt Young, who still looks the same as he did thirty years ago in Rocky) is a mumbly, dense pushover. It’s believable that Bree might have an unsupportive family, but like the “bad guys” in Philadelphia, the film doesn’t need them to help us feel sympathetic towards Bree—we already do. Tucker’s script is occasionally contrived, so it’s better when it focuses on the main characters rather than the plot.
Overall, however, Transamerica’s strengths outnumber its drawbacks and its freshness outweighs what may be familiar or predictable. Central to this success is Huffman, whose funny and vulnerable performance is the engine for this film. I’d love to see her get the Oscar for this, but Walk the Line’s Reese Witherspoon is providing heavy competition. An Oscar for Huffman would be a nice companion piece to Hilary Swank’s win for Boys Don’t Cry; it would be a recognition of something outside the mainstream, which is what Transamerica is all about.
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