"Transamerica" saved by Huffman's graceful performance

by Eric Melin on January 24, 2006

in Print Reviews

For all of its sexual frankness and unusual main characters, writer/director Duncan Tucker’s “Transamerica” is way more familiar than it should be. Essentially an “odd couple” road trip movie about two strangers who must learn to get along, it is redeemed in part by an exceptional lead performance by Felicity Huffman.

Huffman plays Bree Osbourne, a transgender person awaiting the final operation to finally make him a “her.” An interesting paradox is presented right away that legitimizes and stigmatizes transsexuality. Gender disorder has a medical diagnosis, but is also considered a mental illness. As such, Bree needs her therapist to sign a document declaring her fit to finish her sexual reassignment.

Then comes the first in a series of plot contrivances whose well-worn paths threaten to undermine the legitimacy of the film’s message. As her doctor (Elisabeth Pena) agrees to sign the paper that allows her to undergo her final operation, Bree learns she has a son who sits in a New York jail, awaiting bail. Her doctor then abruptly refuses to sign the paper until Bree can reconcile her past by coming clean with her son.

From the brief college heterosexual fling she had as a man that produced son Toby (Kevin Zegers), to the unlikely road trip where she decides to bring him back to California, it all seems a little forced. Once Bree arrives, she goes with the story that she is a Christian missionary and offers to drive the troubled teenager out west, waiting for the right moment to reveal her true identity.

“Look son, no hands!”

Huffman is remarkable, portraying Bree as both a damaged and booksmart person whose headstrong will to change her sex has given her tunnel vision. Toby has his own tragic sexual issues as well, working as a gay hustler in New York, and Tucker’s script pulls off a neat switcheroo of expectations by giving him a proclivity towards sexual perversion and petty crime, thus making the transsexual the “moral” one of the pair.

An unlikely string of events conspire to keep Toby unaware of Bree’s true nature, first as a transsexual and second, as his father. Since the movie is unwilling to go too far into the whys of Bree’s decision to become a woman, it concentrates instead on how the idea of family fits or doesn’t fit into her new life as a woman. Based on their own confusion of her decision, she shuns her own blood family, but is also ashamed and disgusted by the more up-front transsexuals that she meets at a party, leaving her unable to relax in an atmosphere that is supposed be more open and friendly.

On this level, “Transamerica” covers some interesting ground, due mostly to Huffman’s convincing performance. (Let’s not forget the excellent make-up required to make an actress appear believable as a man who takes hormones to appear as a woman.) For someone who lives on the fringes of society, Bree is pretty uptight. Like her dalliances with several subjects and degrees in college, she tends to approach solutions and then back off when they get uncomfortably close. She also has a hilariously dry sense of humor that she directs inwardly. Bree is used to fending off difficult subjects for an audience of one.

Toby, on the other hand, is full of contradictions that don’t make sense. He prostitutes himself to gay men, living on an even more sexual dangerous edge than Bree even, but is unaware of his unusual benefactor’s condition until the actual physical evidence is presented to him. From his small-time arrest, it is made clear early on that Toby isn’t too street smart, but he would have to be brain dead to be as blissfully oblivious to his smothering grandmother’s true intentions as he is late in the film.

This brings us again back to Huffman. She instills Bree which such a determined nobility that we can’t help but empathize with her and forgive her for her unique brand of narrow-mindedness. While I realize that many of this year’s spate of Oscar-buzzworthy performances come from actors playing sexually-confused characters, I also realize that I’ve never seen anything like this before on film. Huffman pulls it off with grace, and elevates a film that otherwise is too comfortable coasting on the waves of too many simple-minded movies before it.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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