I didn’t know quite what to expect sitting down to watch Transamerica. I knew I liked Felicity Huffman – in my opinion she is the strongest character on Desperate Housewives, I knew she had won the Golden Globe and received an Academy Award nomination for her performance in this film and I knew that she played a transsexual male. But, other than that, I wasn’t sure what the film had to offer.
Bree Osbourne (Felicity Huffman) is a male-to-female transsexual who needs to undergo one last operation before ‘she’ can feel complete. Working two jobs to pay for the surgery, and soon to receive clearance from her shrink for the procedure, her old identity (as well as her penis) will soon be gone forever.
But, just as Bree is about to give up the last remaining part of her male sexuality, becoming a fully realised woman, she receives a phone call from a teenage boy claiming to be her son. The boy, Toby (Kevin Zegers) has been arrested and is being held in a lock-up in New York City. Shocked at first, Bree dismisses the call as a prank, promptly putting the phone down. However, when her psychiatrist refuses to sign the consent form granting her permission for his final gender re-assignment surgery until she deals with the issue, Bree is forced to bail the boy out. The sudden arrival of her hustler son into her life forces Bree to re-examine herself and to question her gender when it comes to raising a child. Can she still be a father when, physically, she is becoming a woman?
Transamerica has sold itself as a film about gender issues, and that it is, partly, but upon closer inspection the film reveals itself to be a road trip movie that is more about relationships than sexual identity. It’s a buddy movie (much in the same vein as a film like Coupe de Ville) that takes the conventions of that genre and distorts them. The film surprised because I had no idea where it would be going but also because it grew on me more and more as the story developed. The character of Bree is extremely likable and her determination to fit in as a woman and, when she has to, as a man – especially when dealing with her son – is awkward but admirable.
Felicity Huffman is absolutely mind-blowing in this movie. As a transgender individual her performance forces a person to identify with both halves of her sexuality, female and male. There is an uneven mix between both genders and this is where the power of her performance lies. At times she is extremely effeminate, proper and Lady-like and she is able to convince the majority of the people around her, but one male gesture (sitting with her legs open for example) and she is perceived as a “fraud”, trapped in a body that cannot be defined.
It’s an uneasy duopoly for both Bree and an audience. The voice that Huffman uses throughout the film is possibly the most striking aspect of her transformation into Bree. It’s haunting because we can detect the competition between the male and female aspects of her personality but also because we are so used to seeing Felicity Huffman as a beautiful woman on TV. She is extremely impressive.
The Oscar may have gone to Reese Witherspoon, and I think that she deserved the win, but after seeing Huffman in this role I have to question the Academy’s decision somewhat. Witherspoon’s performance in Walk The Line is fantastic but when compared with Huffman’s it is certainly the safer of the two. But, then again, we know how the Academy likes to play it safe.
The make up and wardrobe departments on this film must be mentioned as well. Both further enhance Felicity Huffman’s performance by placing Bree visually in the limbo that she is experiencing emotionally and physically. For the majority of the film he passes as a woman but we are never 100% convinced, there is always that small indicator that something is not quite right. Throughout the first 90 minutes of the film’s running time we are never allowed to get comfortable with her. We are always reminded that what we see is a work in progress.
Transamerica could have gone completely overboard and become a real head-trip (there is one scene in particular towards the end of the film that sticks out) but, fortunately, director Duncan Tucker never lets it get too ridiculous or twisted. His writing never feels forced and the relationships in the film are allowed to develop realistically and steadily as Bree and Toby drive cross-country.
The film moves from moments of intense drama to sequences of great comedy (the scenes towards the end of the film with Bree’s family are especially noteworthy) and Tucker has struck a great balance between the two. This film could have been extremely heavy if he had wanted it to be. Ultimately though, it‘s a sweet film about a father and his/her son.
Transamerica does feel low-budget, the pacing is slow and it has all the markings of an art-house film. I would agree with other reviewers that if it wasn’t for Felicity Huffman, and her fantastic performance, Transamerica would not be where it is now. While it is a good film, she is the ultimate reason you should see this it.