2005Director: Duncan Tucker
Cast: Fionnula Flanagan, Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers
racking a pre-operative transsexual and her greasy-haired prostitute son on a cross-country road-trip, Transamerica provides a premise rife with quirky opportunity. Like most road-trip movies, it relies heavily upon the depth of its principal characters and the liveliness of any zany misadventure these characters may encounter. The resulting film is a modest success in both respects. Bree (Felicity Huffman) and Toby (Kevin Zegers), her son, are empathetic and convincingly flawed; their exploits, occasionally gimmicky, are entertaining and sometimes touching. Covering emotionally risky territory unfamiliar to most audiences (including myself), the film alternates between dealing honestly with its circumstances and sugarcoating painful events with tacky punch lines.
Bree, mere days away from her gender reassignment surgery, abruptly discovers that she may have fathered a son years ago. Unwilling to shoulder responsibility and face her quickly receding past, Bree ignores her son until a motivational therapist goads her into action. Upon meeting her alleged kin, she understandably withholds this biological information, while inexplicably adopting the persona of a religious social worker. When Toby, against Bree’s wishes, follows her home to Los Angeles, the two embark upon a journey of self-discovery and communication.
An over-familiar scenario, admittedly, but to its credit, Transamerica abstains from tiresome scenes in which each character teaches the other valuable lessons about life. Bree is awkwardly uptight and Toby recklessly callous; both are lonely and immature. Rather than Toby showing Bree how to relax or Bree instructing Toby on the value of security, the pair bonds solely through their desperate need to connect (a common but worthwhile theme). As father and son adjust to one other, the film observes the messy and unpleasant consequences of their relationship, as well as growth and companionship. Director Duncan Tucker avoids offering his characters a free pass to happiness. Even when offering hope, the film acknowledges the clumsiness and ambivalence inherent in everyday life.
The movie treats its gender issues with the same weighted practicality. Although Bree awaits her final surgery without reservation, this final transformation will not lead to inner peace. Despite her tendency to focus on the most dramatic forthcoming change, her troubles clearly extend beyond her sexual identity. Like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Transamerica elegantly moves past the status of an ‘issue’ film, and recognizes multiple layers in its controversial characters. Although Bree harbors no doubt as to her inner gender, she displays a prudishness that reveals both self-loathing and insecurity—traits disconnected from her transsexuality.
The film’s pink-hued marketing campaign, however, hints at an occasional lack of such dignity. Two elderly women sat next to me in the theater. Their repeated cacklings of “Bizarre!” and “How interesting!” were justified by the slyly arrogant tone the film assumes as it gleefully observes Bree’s atypical morning routine. Thankfully, the ‘she used to be a man, bwaha!’ vein of humor subsides as the film gains pace. When Bree and Toby visit Bree’s conservative family, the gentle ribbing and camaraderie between Bree and her one supportive sister display a kindlier, more sensitive tone.
The performance by Felicity Huffman is, understandably, the most lauded aspect of the film. It’s a remarkable feat, in terms of physical dedication, nuance, and composure. One scene, however, carries the de-glam trend a bit too far as Bree, post-surgery, drools all over herself. Verisimilitude is good, but can easily shift into showiness. Huffman turns in a fine performance without the aid of such measures.
Ultimately, Transamerica proves an amusing film with a fine central performance. The aforementioned ladies in my audience, despite prior behavior, seemed emotionally moved by the end of the film. After a few shaky steps, Tucker’s film nimbly recovers and offers sympathetic characters with whom anyone can relate.