Transamerica

Transamerica

****

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Flamboyance would seem to be the fate of cinema's transsexuals and transvestites. For films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), La Cage Aux Folles (1978), The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994), To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), Hedwig And The Angry Inch (2001) and Breakfast On Pluto (2005) all depict their cross-dressing, gender-dysphoric hero(in)es as bitchy, larger-than-life drama queens who make an endless parade of their own otherness. While all the garish costumes and outrageous poses certainly make for colourful spectacle, they also run the risk of preening themselves into cinematic cliche, not to mention making it difficult for many viewers truly to empathise and engage. Camp is entertaining, but it rarely stirs the emotions.

So Bree (Felicity Huffman), the main character of Duncan Tucker's Transamerica, is a real breath of fresh air. Sure, she is transgendered and about to have the last remnants of her masculinity removed with reassignment surgery, but far from wishing to let it all hang out before it is too late or to present a grotesque fish-netted parody of femininity, Bree just wants to pass unnoticed ("keeping the stealth", as she puts it), and to live a quiet life as a woman.

She dresses conservatively, she speaks in a hushed mid-range, she behaves with a pronounced primness and, instead of being a drag queen or prostitute, she divides her time between telemarketing and working in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant. Rather than flaunt her difference, she wants to be taken for the same as everyone else and in this she has succeeded, largely by dissociating herself from her past as a man.

That past, however, falls right back into her lap when she gets a call from Toby (Kevin Zegers), the son she never knew she had, who is now in a New York juvenile prison for theft, drugs and gay hussling. Pressured by her therapist (Elizabeth Pena), Bree reluctantly travels east from Los Angeles to bail Toby out and without revealing who she really is, offers to drive him cross-country. As the pair travel, squabble, bond, and eventually confront some home truths, Bree discovers that she is on a journey not only to womanhood, but also to maternity (via an acknowledgement of past paternity) - if only she can avoid the example set by her own monster of a mother, Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan).

Old-fashioned family values are just about the last thing that one might expect to find in a quirky road movie featuring a below-the-radar tranny and her would-be gay-pornstar son, but this is just one of several surprises to be found in Transamerica, a film which, concerned as it is with mid-life crisis, unplanned parenthood and self-discovery, would make an excellent double-bill with Broken Flowers. Tucker's screenplay is sharp but also sensitive, so the ample good humour never drifts into high camp (apart from the scenes with Bree's mother - and SHE is straight).

Best of all, though, is Huffman's performance. She may, like Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria (1982), be a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman, but with her not-quite-right voice and her awkward gait, she is utterly convincing in 'both' roles - and unlike her fellow cast-members from Desperate Housewives (which began shooting after Transamerica was already in the can), Huffman can carry off a dramatic part without ever having to resort to shrieking histrionics or in-your-face hamming. She is well supported by Zegers, by turns cocky and needy, headstrong and vulnerable, as the adolescent son on a quest for his father, who ends up finding a mother.

These characters could so easily have been turned into figures of ridicule, but instead they are taken entirely seriously and presented as rounded individuals whose sexuality and gender are only parts of a more multi-faceted identity, so that the film's underlying message about acceptance is not undercut by the potentially alienating variety of glam pantomime normally associated with films about transsexuality. Bree's complexity also immunises Transamerica against any objections that she really ought to have been played by a genuine transsexual - for to assert this is to risk missing the film's point. Like the guy says at the end of Some Like it Hot: "Nobody's perfect."

Reviewed on: 23 Mar 2006
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A pre-operative transsexual takes an unexpected journey after discovering she has a son.
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Chris ****

Director: Duncan Tucker

Writer: Duncan Tucker

Starring: Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers, Fionnula Flanagan, Elizabeth Pena, Graham Greene, Burt Young, Carrie Preston, Venita Evans, Jon Budinoff, Raynor Scheine, Grant Monohon

Year: 2005

Runtime: 103 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: USA

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