For artistry and degree of technical difficulty, this judge awards Felicity Huffman a 10 for her performance in Transamerica. But as with so many elaborate Olympic sports, this judge asks for clarification: What is the point of the exercise?
You see, in Transamerica, the lithe, quick-witted actress, best known these days for her Emmy-winning membership in the Desperate Housewives sorority, plays a pre-op transsexual whose birth name was Stanley and who now calls herself Bree. That’s to say, Huffman is a woman playing a man in the process of transforming into a woman — a prim, conservative tranny, in fact, with a preference for boxy, church-lady suits. (She appears to share a tragic fashion gene with Tom Wilkinson in Normal.) When Bree is unnerved, she flutters like a girly Southern belle; when she speaks, she further softens her husky alto voice with refined enunciation. Yet Huffman teases out a hint of her character’s past maleness in the way the ladylike Bree composes herself — a captivating flight of technique, built from equal parts empathy and skilled control.
Bree lives in Los Angeles, where she’s well on her way to final gender-reassignment surgery when she receives a call from someone in New York claiming to be Stanley’s son, Toby (WB junior hottie Kevin Zegers, looking nicely hottie-dissolute). The teen runaway, a street hustler currently in jail on a related charge, is looking for his father — and, incidentally, needs to post bail. Toby’s late mother, Bree is shocked to learn, was a brief girlfriend from Stanley’s male college days.
An undeniably audacious feature debut from writer-director Duncan Tucker with various film festival awards to its credit, Transamerica plays heavily on the multiple implications of the title. Without admitting her real relationship to Toby, and at her psychiatrist’s insistence, she flies to New York and bails the kid out. (Toby assumes she’s a missionary who saves lost street youth.) She thinks she’ll drop him off at his stepfather’s place in Kentucky before returning to L.A. for surgery (tran’s America); he thinks he’ll travel with her to L.A. (trans-America) to find the father he doesn’t know is sitting next to him.
Terrible, soap opera things happen when the duo gets to Toby’s stepfather’s place. Likewise, the deck is stacked heavily toward pathos when the odd couple arrives on the doorstep of Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young as the cartoony, disapproving old parents Stanley/Bree thought he/she’d never see again.
So much agony! So many secrets! Such crazy hoo-hahing from Flanagan and Young! Courage is surely required by anyone embarking on a sex-changing journey to personal fulfillment. But the unintended effect of all the melodramatic complications in Transamerica is, oddly, to distract attention from an understanding of exactly what that courage really costs.
2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Felicity Huffman); Best Original Song (”Travelin’ Thru”)