The collection of social oddities and family extremes that make up the cast of “Transamerica” could be perfect fodder for a “Jerry Springer” mini-series. With a transsexual and a seventeen-year-old male prostitute as its main characters, the story could be bogged down by oversimplification and insensitive portrayals of these social pariahs, instead the dialogue feels remarkably authentic as do the extraordinary performances by Felicity Huffman and co-star Kevin Zegers.
“Transamerica” has the tour de force acting performance of the year by a female, as Felicity Huffman steps into the coveted place in film reserved for riveting transformations. A spot previously inhabited- and with Oscar recognition- by Charlize Theron and Robert DeNiro. As a pre-op transsexual male, born as Stanley, the newly christened Bree Osbourne (Huffman) has done her time living as a woman. With her scheduled gender reassignment operation only a week away, she receives an unexpected call from Toby (Zegers), a young boy in a New York detention center claiming to be her/Stanley’s son. Bree’s confession of the telephone encounter to her therapist sets the story in motion, as her psychologist will refuse to give her consent to the surgery if Bree neglects to deal with the identity of the son she never knew she had.
With its reference to transsexuality, “Transamerica” may be the most obvious, albeit clever, wordplay movie title of the year. The framework of the story is a road-trip from New York to L.A., complete with enough adventures to fill a National Lampoon production, but done with a level of sincerity that for the most part keeps “Transamerica” honest and engaging. Writer/Director Duncan Tucker straddles the line between believable interaction and camp, only occassionally crossing the line and teetering dangerously on parody.
Along with Huffman and Zegers, the always likable Graham Greene gives a quick but fantastic turn as Calvin Manygoats, a New Mexico horseman who gives Bree and Toby a ride and a place to stay. The affection and attraction between Calvin and Bree was the only story line left unexplored at the film’s end that would have merited more time. A ferocious Fionnula Flannagan (“The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”) and Burt Young (Uncle Pauley from the “Rocky” series) are entertaining as Bree’s conflicted parents, shocked to see Bree’s transformation and elated to encounter their grandson.
“Transamerica” is a small and decidedly quiet movie about loud characters who aren’t struggling to be normal so much as they are fighting for respect and a place in the world to find themselves. While the film and its themes could just as easily have found a home on network television as a made-for-T.V. movie, Huffman’s performance deserves recognition and the screenplay makes “Transamerica” a wonderfully human story, beautifully acted and worthy of the big screen.