Bonding across genders

TRANSAMERICA: Written and directed by Duncan Tucker. Produced by Linda Moran, Rene Bastian, Sebastian Dungan. Executive producer, William H. Macy. Cinematography, Stephen Kazmierski. Editor, Pam Wise. Production design, Mark White. Music composer, performer, David Mansfield. Music supervisor, Doug Bernheim. Costumes, Danny Glicker. Starring Felicity Huffman and Kevin Zegers, with Elizabeth Peña, Fionnula Flanagan, Graham Greene, Burt Young and Carrie Preston. TWC, The Weinstein Company, 2005. R. 103 minutes.

I’m amazed when a hard-to-market film such as Transamerica gets made at all. But even more baffling is a releasing company that sits on its hands after the film picks up a major Academy Award nomination. Transamerica had a late Eugene theatrical release, and even as I write these words I just learned that the film will play here only through Thursday, March 9. Hopefully, it will return.

At Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony, Felicity Huffman didn’t win best actress, despite overcoming with grace the challenges of playing a man living as a woman while undergoing gender modification and awaiting final gender-reassignment surgery. OK, so Hollywood’s not ready for serious transgender themes, just The Birdcage follies.

Truth is, it takes some work to imagine Bree (Huffman) as a man, even a technical man. There are a few clues: He wears super-feminine clothes and high heels, all the time, even to the grocery store. He isn’t very good with makeup; the colors aren’t quite right for his skin tone. Worse, he hasn’t found a good voice yet. Apparently learning a natural-sounding voice is one of the most difficult transitions from man to woman or vice versa. As a moviegoer, my problem with Bree’s voice is that it sounds controlled, very carefully modulated and flat, without feeling.

Bree (short for Sabrina) keeps emotions under control, like the girdle he wears under his pink and lavender clothing, which cloaks his/her ambiguous sexual identity. Bree is shocked when the phone rings in his L.A. bungalow one night, and a son he never knew he had calls from a New York jail, looking for his father. By the time Bree gets to Margaret (Elizabeth Peña), his therapist, he’s behaving, well, a little hysterically. That’s the first time I thought: The hormones are working. And that’s when I started seeing Bree as a woman waiting for surgery to deliver her from an unwanted identity rather than as a woman playing a man trying to be a woman.

Bree goes to New York, bails out Toby (Kevin Zegers), and starts trying to get rid of him almost immediately. He’s a surly teen, with bad habits she can’t stand, such as dope. But when Bree calls him out for some behaviors, Toby stops doing them. And the least little warmth begins between them. Toby thinks Bree is a church woman, trying to straighten him out, with no idea she’s his father. Bree buys a rattletrap, and they head west for California. Now the rhythm switches to road trip, where anything can happen.

With no practical skills as a parent, Bree stumbles more than once with Toby, as he does with her. This boy has had a difficult time growing up, and what he’s learned as a street hustler is that sex appeal matters. He misreads Bree, and she misunderstands him. There are some funny moments with Bree’s upscale parents (Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young) who live in an Arizona desert home with all the water you’d ever want, including a swimming pool. Mother is nearly a monster, while Dad shut up a long time ago. Sis is a bubble-head, but a nice one.

Then the inevitable unmasking begins.

Transamerica shows the human frailty of a transgendered woman who almost too late realizes she, too, deserves a loving family that includes a son more in need of a parent than he can say.

If it’s Thursday, you can still catch the movie at Cinemark and Cinema World. It may come back to Movies 12 before going to DVD. One way or another, this little film is worth a look. Highly recommended.

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