Director: Chris Colombus
Stars: Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers, Graham Greene
Available on DVD - order here
Review by Matthew Rettenmund
For some time now, Bree (Felicity Huffman)—nee Stanley Osbourne—has relied on more than just the kindness of strangers—she’s relied on their tacit acceptance of her as a woman despite telltale signs (an Adam’s apple, falsies, a still somewhat clumsy handle on feminine gestures) that Bree is physically still more he than she.
Even in Los Angeles, Bree is the type of person to draw double-takes. Already living her life as a woman, she’s one recommendation away from being greenlighted for gender-reassignment surgery. But she’s tossed a curveball when told that a heterosexual union 17 years earlier resulted in the birth of a son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), who is currently in a juvenile detention center in Manhattan. Nothing like finding out you have a long lost hoodlum. Unless it’s finding out your long lost father is desperately seeking to swap penis for vagina.
Thanks to a perhaps too thorough shrink (Elizabeth Pena)—who won’t sign off on the surgery for Bree until Stanley has come to terms with this surprise son—a flight to New York is in order, followed by a road trip that is as full of unpleasant moments as it is pleasant ones, and which makes for one of 2005’s most unique and touching comic films.
Casting the part of Bree must have been a challenge for writer/director Duncan Tucker. Do you pick a man in drag? A woman in touch with her masculine side? A transsexual? In the end, he tapped Felicity Huffman, she of the current hit U.S. TV show “Desperate Housewives”, and the decision pays off handsomely. Though it is fellow Housewife Nicollette Sheridan who has battled criticism for looking “transgendered-esque,” Huffman has the perfect features to play this part—her alarming lack of body fat gifts her with a unisex look and her face has a surgical quality that renders her perfectly believable as a person born in the wrong body who’s attempting to use science to right that wrong. Huffman enhances her physical appropriateness for the part by adapting a painful-sounding but painfully perfect voice, one that suggests a hormone-induced journey from male to female. Her mannerisms are spot-on. Huffman easily passes as a transsexual, and making it look so easy will make her hard to overlook at Oscar time.
When Bree meets her son for the first time, as much as she longs to tell him the truth about herself and therefore get her surgery, she chickens out, instead posing as a religious missionary intent on saving his soul. She winds up driving him (in a hastily purchased car) cross country. Her plan is to drive through their shared hometown in Kentucky, the place where both were born but in which they’ve never co-existed, thanks to their separate instinctual flights from the backwoods.
Toby is as original a character as Bree, and he’s full of just as many surprises. First, he has been surviving as a gay hustler, something you might think Bree would not be terribly shocked by. But while her own situation might leave jaws on floors, she is prim and sufficiently chastened by this revelation. Toby also leaves Bree—and the audience—guessing when he makes out with a girl his own age encountered during a pit stop, confesses he aspires to be a high-paid gay pornstar and flips out when he awakens to realize that Bree has brought him to his birthplace. In a gut-wrenching scene, we discover that Toby more than dislikes his stepfather for a pretty good reason.
As Toby, Kevin Zegers gives a breakthrough performance. Previously known as the star of cornball kid classics like MVP: Most Valuable Primate (2000) and the four films of the Air Bud movie series (1997—2002), Zegers is slinky and cunning, achingly vulnerable and embarrassingly naive in this role, calling to mind River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho (1991). He’s beautiful on the big screen, which makes Toby’s less than idyllic life all the more haunting.
But this is no deadly serious character study; Transamerica is as effective as it is thanks to the sardonic, self-effacing humor projected by Bree. It does not call to mind “vintage John Waters” as Variety absurdly proclaimed when the movie was screened at the Berlin Film Festival, but it never shies away from broad humor, mixing pathos with pratfalls in a style reminiscent of Muriel’s Wedding (1994).
Some of the comedy feels utterly new, such as a scene that takes place at a Dallas get-together for transsexuals, where Toby exudes smug pride at knowing who and what they are, all the while ignorant of the true nature of the woman acting as his guide. When Bree is unexpectedly “read” (seen right through) by a child, her reaction is funny and real, and when the duo meets up with Calvin Two Goats (Graham Greene) and hitches a ride, his chemistry with Bree is palpable, giving her a chance to try out her newborn feminine wiles in exchanges that mirror those between Terence Stamp as Bernadette and Bill Hunter as Bob in 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
At other times, the movie seems to go too far. As much fun as it undeniably is to see Bree interacting with her repulsed mother (Fionnula Flanagan), stepfather (Burt Young) and n’er-do-well sister (Carrie Preston), the strokes become awfully broad. And occasional credibility-stretching moments (Toby’s out-of-nowhere decision to offer himself up for sex to Bree with no knowledge that he’s proposing incest) weaken the movie at inopportune moments, making you think back to the ridiculous series of events that have led us through this otherwise enjoyable vacation from the hum-drum. Still, “life is more than the sum of its parts,” as Transamerica’s tagline states, and—lucky for Duncan Tucker—so is this movie.
In the end, there is enough that uplifts to counteract some unresolved issues, and to act as an antidote to all the movies in which people like Bree must be murdered or die or wind up wishing they were dead.
On the contrary, Bree is reborn, and it’s a life worth waiting for.