Reviewed by: Chris

The title Transamerica unfolds into several different meanings as we follow this road-movie comedy-drama, crossing America, as well as broad spectrums of American thinking, and ultimately it invites us to transform our attitudes towards transgender individuals.

Bree (Felicity Huffman) is a few days away from realising a dream she has looked forward to for years, when her psychotherapist forces her to put everything on hold until she has dealt with her past - specifically, a son, Toby (from a brief affair) who has turned up in a New York jail.

Working as a male hustler and not averse to drug-taking, Toby (Kevin Zegers) has a shock when Bree bails him out by posing as a church missionary. The two of them make the journey to California. Toby dreams of becoming a Hollywood star; Bree dreams of surgery and is desperate to get back to Los Angeles in time for the operation. The two of them are also making an inner journey, coming to terms with who they are in relation to others, just as the audience also explore their feelings about a very emotive subject.

Bree, while not wanting to "blab her entire biological history" to Toby, doesn't want him to know they are related either. As a teenage tearaway with little self-respect, Toby baulks at the social niceties demanded by Bree - until he learns she is a pre-op male-to-female transsexual. This provides plenty of opportunity for comedy adventures as the unlikely pair go through stages of concealment - meeting a gender reassignment support group, Bree's disapproving parents, men drawn sexually to Toby, and a kind-hearted Native American that is looking for a soul mate in Bree.

As a comedy, Transamerica has more in common with films demanding an emotional and imaginative response such as Lost in Translation, or Sideways, than the few transgender films that have reached a wide audience, such as Hedwig And The Angry Inch. It is largely due to Felicity Huffman's remarkable and understated performance that it is a genuine journey of self-discovery rather than one of caricature.

As in dealing with any marginalised social group, the challenge is to see the person as a person, rather than as an example of what makes them different to the majority. In this way, we come to celebrate difference rather than use it as a scapegoat to prejudice. Broad-brush approaches also fall out of favour, as they are insufficient to challenge the Establishment. Particularly, Hollywood's target audience of 18 to 25-year-olds tend to look for post-feminist attitudes to gender issues. The 'victim' psychology, whether in relation to women, gays, blacks or any other minority, has given way to positive images and a wide range of separate lifestyles.

Commercially, Transamerica relies on affective comedy, curiosity about bodily processes, and the intellectual pleasure of tackling little-explored subject matter. Its easily digestible format means it approachese heavy 'issues' without fear of getting bogged down in controversies or taking sides.

By turns moving and funny, Transamerica focusses more on things such as parent-son bonding than on transsexualism. The agonies of the transsexual are left largely untouched, although at one point Bree does remark that she feels like a mediaeval heretic impaled on a large stake - with splinters.

Bree's prim, proper and pernickety worried-but-coping manner is beautifully delivered and finely nuanced by Huffman into a very believable performance. We are genuinely able to identify with her gender reassignment crisis but also see her 'for who she is', as we become increasingly aware of her ability to love and be loved, her deep self-respect (which Toby lacks), of her deeply held values about parenting. Such a light but intelligent approach is likely to transform more hearts and minds than any amount of documentary or sermonising.

The songs throughout are a joy and the characters interact impeccably. My main criticism is that, for two-thirds of the movie, Transamerica follows a fairly formulaic path, the road movie where two people bond through successive adventures, aided by fairly predictable escapades enlivened by a secret of which the audience has been forewarned.

It is only in the final third of the movie that the emotional and intellectual payload kick in and justify what would otherwise be a routine movie with an oestrogen twist. Transamerica finally validates itself as a character study, with one character so unusual that we can make a journey ourselves, comparing our developing ideas and any judgemental tendencies to those the foil characters already unflatteringly displayed. An independent film successfully breaking into mainstream, it crosses America and crosses gender stereotypes but does so with a love and charm that linger long after Dolly Parton's Travelin' Thru' song has faded with the credits.

Reviewed on: 23 Mar 2006
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A pre-operative trans woman takes an unexpected journey after discovering she has a son.
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Anton Bitel ****

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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