Both a portrait of transsexual angst and an empowering road trip adventure, Transamerica is To Wong Foo but with a pre-op tranny protagonist and a strained parent-child dynamic. Hormone pill-popping Bree (Felicity Huffman) is one week from the male-to-female sexual reassignment surgery that will finally make her a woman when she discovers that she’s the father (thanks to a sole heterosexual encounter in college) of a juvenile delinquent named Toby (Kevin Zegers) currently locked up in Manhattan for drug possession and street hustling. At the urging of her therapist, Margaret (Elizabeth Peña), Bree visits her sullen teen offspring, but though she eventually convinces him to drive back to the West Coast with her—where he dreams of acting in gay porn—she refuses to divulge who she truly is. Thus writer-director Duncan Tucker’s proficiently shot film becomes an ungainly two-headed beast, focusing on the particulars of Bree’s physical/emotional condition and lifestyle while simultaneously charting her laughs-and-tears relationship with closed-off Toby, a kid who, like Bree, has deep-rooted identity issues thanks to an unsupportive, abusive upbringing. Such a hybrid structure nicely mirrors Bree’s own dual gender make-up even as it leads to a lurching, inharmonious tone (not unlike Bree’s baritone-to-falsetto vocal range) and a narrative glibness, simplifying Bree’s torturous internal and external conflicts to the realm of broad comedy and her relationship with Toby to a TV movie-esque button-pushing device. Transamerica largely generates tension from Bree’s efforts to conceal her penis from whorish Toby, yet this overriding focus on Bree’s cross-country game of hide-the-salami is indicative of the film’s avoidance of complex issues, boiling Bree and Toby’s personal and social problems down to traumatic mommy and daddy issues easily overcome through a little TLC. Made to look manly underneath a layer of garish make-up and florid outfits and accoutrements, a convincingly distraught Huffman largely refuses to succumb to the film’s facileness even as Tucker’s writing mines her character’s caught-between-two-sexes circumstance for tepid laughs (Bree’s intolerant mom blames synagogue visits for her child’s repulsive surgical desires), all-too-convenient romance (between Bree and Graham Greene’s Native American), and cheap pathos (such as a little girl asking Bree, “Are you a boy or a girl?”). Transamerica’s final, reconciliatory note of non-judgmental acceptance, however, can’t counteract the preceding, ungainly imperfectness of its reductive melodrama.
- Duncan Tucker
- Duncan Tucker
- Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers, Fionnula Flanagan, Graham Greene, Burt Young, Elizabeth Peña
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