If the hat fits
By Steven Snyder
Transamerica may traverse thousands of miles and reunite a drug addicted son with an absentee father, but it never acknowledges the far more compelling story lingering at the center of this road trip film: That of a scared, but brave man going through an extraordinary transformation, which seems to make sense to no one but himself and his counselor.
This doesnt mean that writer and director Duncan Tucker shies away from discussions of transgender issues, sexual reassignment surgery or the difficulty in coming to grips with the fact that both a son and father were born into the wrong body. Thankfully, all those discussions are present and prominent, and it joins last weekends Brokeback Mountain as one of the more courageous films of 2005 to bring a dialogue of social acceptance to an alarmingly conservative American majority.
But whats truly magic about Transamerica is really never discussed or underlined.
Bree (Golden Globe nominee Felicity Huffman) is a woman who doesnt feel comfortable in her own skin. She constantly readjusts her hair, reapplies her makeup and straightens her clothing. She walks with a manufactured swagger, and constantly tries to make herself seem smaller and shorter.
Only later in the film, after she has taken the plunge of transgender surgery, officially switching genders from male to female, does the issue finally resolve in our minds. For one final scene, she seems comfortable and natural at ease with her own presence. In the closing shot, the nervous edge that has permeated every minute of her story disappears, and all thats left is the unsheathed humanity of a person made complete.
This powerful effect is partly achieved by the riveting, and sure to be underrated, performance of Felicity Huffman. She is able to find a subtle sense of hesitation and awkwardness that contrasts with her outward attempts at grace and poise. She is at once refined and falling apart, so careful in dress and language and yet always forced to hide her true identity. But Tucker knew he needed a compelling story to match such a compelling character, and Transamerica is as much a drama of watching Bree overcome her timidity as it is a cross-country road trip of reunions and broken hearts.
Days before her surgery, Bree is contacted by Toby (Kevin Zegers), a young delinquent who claims to be her well, his son. Convinced by her therapist that she must cope with this surprise before changing her life forever, Bree bails her son out of jail and throws him in a car for a cross-country trip without revealing her true identity. She is intent on delivering him to California and then parting ways, but in truth they are each destined for an unforgettable journey Toby away from his lonely descent into drugs and pornography, and Bree towards a sense of completeness.
One key to Tuckers formula is that it embraces a sense of jarring, contradictory emotions. Never is this disconnect more apparent than in the unexpected return to Brees hometown. Her parents, notably her hyperactive mother (Fionnula Flanagan in a memorable, over-the-top performance) are shocked by their new daughter, and sad about their lost son. All the while, Bree and Toby come to a sense of mutual understanding and respect.
But just as Brees aloof mother comes around, Tobys affections for Bree become more than platonic, and suddenly we are confronted with a perverse role reversal as Tobys charged sexuality overwhelms anything that may seen unconventional or unorthodox about Brees.
In this way, Transamerica casts everyone but Bree as confused. Her mom is borderline bigoted, her son is sexually frustrated and shattered, even her accepted sister appears impotent and is a recovering alcoholic.
The effect of all this is obvious: Bree is the only rock at the center of the film, the one complete and stable human being in a world of ungrounded, melodramatic fools. In a not-so-subtle metaphor for the films larger message, it is briefly explained to Bree how cowboys wear their hats one way if theyre looking for trouble, and another if theyre looking for ladies. Its all about image and perception, much like the notion of boy and girl, or mother and son.
In that vein, Transamerica is a two hour adventure of a woman fidgeting with her appearance, finally finding one that fits just right.