TV & Radio
Film review: Transamerica
Thu Sep 15, 2005 9:27 PM ET
By Sheri Linden
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - On the big screen, "Desperate Housewives" star Felicity Huffman often has been relegated to the supporting category of friend/sister/neighbor.
With the poignant and often deliriously funny road-trip feature "Transamerica," she steps into the challenging lead role of a solitary pre-operative transsexual and delivers an extraordinary portrait. The film marks an auspicious debut for writer-director Duncan Tucker, whose fresh, character-driven storytelling should make this December release from the Weinstein Co. an art-house favorite.
Whatever it says about the zeitgeist, the theme of unexpected fatherhood has informed the work of a number of filmmakers this year, among them Jim Jarmusch ("Broken Flowers"), Wim Wenders ("Don't Come Knocking") and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne ("The Child"). In this case the reluctant but curious dad who learns he has a son happens to be a woman in tasteful pastels. The transgender spin avoids gimmickiness thanks to Tucker's deft touch and the subtle work of Huffman and the rest of the pitch-perfect cast, especially Kevin Zegers as the lost-and-found offspring.
Gender politics is an element of the film but by no means its subject. Tucker's concerns are loneliness, emotional honesty and the simple need for human kindness. Bree, nee Stanley (Huffman), is self-contained in her little Los Angeles bungalow, and her closest friend is her compassionate therapist, Margaret (Elizabeth Pena). A week before the ultimate surgical step in her gender transformation, she receives a phone call from a 17-year-old New York inmate who claims to be Stanley's son. Single-minded in her countdown to the operating room, Bree dismisses the unwanted disruption, but Margaret refuses to OK the medical procedure until Bree goes to New York to address the matter.
Bree bails out the brooding Toby (Zegers) but hasn't the nerve to divulge why she's there and plays along when he assumes she's a church missionary. A photograph confirms that the boy, a good-looking street hustler who ran away from home after his mother died, is the product of a college coupling, and a sense of responsibility takes hold of Bree. Instead of flying home she buys a chartreuse station wagon to drive Toby cross-country to L.A., where he expects to find his father living large and hopes to break into movies -- of the San Fernando Valley sort.
Bree maintains her "deep stealth" (living as a genetic female), keeping two secrets from Toby - her biological history and his. She's a fascinating character, and Huffman brilliantly embodies the complex layers of self-awareness and denial in this prim yet gutsy individual, who each day must paint on a face and put on a voice to become more truly herself. Self-consciousness is a constant, as the film powerfully demonstrates when a child's innocent but discerning question plunges Bree into despair.
As a boy who considers sex his chief talent, Zegers - of the "Air Bud" films and last year's "Dawn of the Dead" remake - conveys Toby's essential sweetness and hunger for real affection, making him much more than just a vain or damaged kid.
Instead of settling into quirky odd-couple shtick, the film is full of unexpected turns, every character the duo encounters surprising and well observed, from a free-spirited hitcher (Grant Monohon) to a New Mexico rancher (Graham Greene) who gallantly comes to Bree's assistance, more than a bit smitten.
Tucker's astute script and direction weave laugh-out-loud humor into his characters' longing for acceptance, particularly when their journey takes them to the Phoenix McMansion of Bree's family - whose kitsch collectibles, part of Mark White's excellent production design, supply one of the funniest moments in the film. You don't have to be a transsexual to understand the way Bree's parents (Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young) and sister (Carrie Preston) feed her self-doubt. But even the wonderful Flanagan's turquoise-bedecked, monstrously materialistic Elizabeth is afforded her humanity, because Duncan lets emotions unfold instead of merely scoring points and moving on.
David Mansfield's Americana-tinged score underlines the optimism and the plaintiveness of a journey that's memorably captured in DP Stephen Kazmierski's sensitive camerawork.
Bree: Felicity Huffman
Toby: Kevin Zegers
Elizabeth: Fionnula Flanagan
Margaret: Elizabeth Pena
Calvin: Graham Greene
Murray: Burt Young
Sydney: Carrie Preston
Arletty: Venida Evans
Hitchhiker: Grant Monohon
Director/writer: Duncan Tucker; Producers: Linda Moran, Rene Bastian, Sebastian Dungan; Executive producer: William H. Macy; Director of photography: Stephen Kazmierski; Production designer: Mark White; Music: David Mansfield; Costume designer: Danny Glicker; Editor: Pam Wise.