Appearances can be deceiving. While I would rather undergo toenail removal than admit to watching the current season of American Idol, I found myself perplexed by the judges when they were confronted with a young man who could have passed for a woman. One judge even had to ask, exclaiming amazement when the contestant not only admitted to being male, but also to getting a kick out of people mistaking him for a woman.
You see, even though people around him were challenged by his appearance, the contestant was completely comfortable in his own skin.
Transamerica, the feature debut of writer-director Duncan Tucker, raises those stakes. Imagine being a woman trapped inside a man’s body, and I’m not talking about cannibal night at the Casbah. Everything you feel, think and do, you do as a woman.
While the premise is usually played for laughs (Goodbye Charlie, Switch), Transamerica explores transgender issues with respect, humanity and, yes, some good-natured humor. It features a fabulous performance by Felicity Huffman as Bree, born Stanley Osbourne, who is weeks away from the final surgery which will exorcise (excise) the last remnants of Stanley.
Bree isn’t a ravishing beauty. In fact, she’s still a little manly, something she hopes hormones, vocal training and lack of a penis will cure. When we first meet Bree, she’s working on her voice, trying to change the register. In fact, we’re listening as Bree informs therapist Margaret (Elizabeth Pena) of the long journey she has made to arrive at this point in her life.
Margaret is essential in Bree’s life. Not only is she the voice of reason, Margaret’s signature is necessary for the final operation. It’s Margaret’s job to make sure her patient is not only ready to abandon her previous life, but capable of adjusting to her new one. That means reconciling Stanley’s past.
Then Bree gets a phone call. It’s from a 17-year-old boy named Toby (Kevin Zegers), who has been arrested for shoplifting. Having recently lost his mother, Toby claims Stanley is his long-lost father. As Stanley, Bree remembers a one-night fling with a woman 17 years ago. Curious to know if Toby is really her son, and encouraged by Margaret to head to New York to close the books on her past, Bree reluctantly makes the trip. Afraid to reveal her true identity, Bree pretends to be with a rescue group called the Church of the Potential Father.
I love the way Tucker takes his time laying out the groundwork for what essentially amounts to a buddy road trip. Tucker understands the dynamics of dysfunction, and frequently manages to keep the character’s eccentricities in check. Occasionally, a character becomes larger than life, but it never takes us out of the story.
Huffman is brilliant as she draws us into Bree’s world. It’s an amazing transformation. Even playing ordinary characters, Huffman shines, and she literally radiates underneath make-up and appliances designed to give her facial features more of an edge. The transformation is so complete, Huffman and the audience lose themselves in Bree. She’s not what you would call model pretty, but there is a sweetness and honesty in her that is very attractive.
All of this is lost on Toby, a boy who has been bitch-slapped by life and family, who dreams of leaving New York for Hollywood, where he hopes to make it in gay porn. Every mother’s dream. At first, Toby doesn’t know Bree is his father, and naively mistakes him for a her. Anxious to get back to Los Angeles for her sex reassignment surgery, Bree buys a used car and hits the road with Toby.
Most road movies take obvious side trips and detours, engaging us in outrageous characters and behavior guaranteed to prove America is filled with dumb and stupid people. Tucker takes the road less traveled. While there is ample opportunity to milk situations for laughs, Tucker is more interested in how characters relate to each other, how they affect the world around them and, most importantly, their willingness to accept others for who and not what they are.
Like Bree, Transamerica is just looking for tolerance and acceptance. Tucker resists every urge to stand on a soap box or allow his characters to use megaphones to make their point. Transamerica isn’t that film. Instead, it’s a film about two people who have more in common than they realize. Toby also wants acceptance. He knows his place in the world, and just wants to play his role. It may not be the stuff that dreams are made of, but becoming a gay porn star means adoration, even if it’s artificial.
In truth, Toby is hiding some serious emotional scars. When Bree makes an unexpected to stop at Toby’s stepfather’s house, she and we get a clear picture of what would drive a kid to become so distant. It’s not really unexpected, but the moment is played so matter-of-factly it becomes painful.
Tucker does an excellent job of finding reasons to put Bree and Toby behind the wheel together, giving them breathing room to discuss their issues, dreams, fears and hopes. He doesn’t put the pedal to the metal, so every time the characters make a stop we know a little more about them. Kevin Zegers, the kid from the Air Bud films, more than holds his own as Toby. The character is just as complicated as Bree, and Zegers fills in the blanks with raw emotion.
By the time Bree arrives at her parents’ (Fionnula Flanagan, Burt Young, both excellent), we not only know what their reaction will be, we know where the reunion is headed. What’s unexpected is how the filmmaker uses the moment to bring the film full circle. While Stanley’s son has come home, Stanley is gone forever. Life goes on and, for Bree, life goes on as a woman filled with hope and spirit. Those willing to take the trip with her should arrive at the same destination.