p>Transamerica’s Sabrina Osbourne is one of the loneliest people I’ve ever encountered in either life or fiction. She says that her friends call her “Bree,” but in truth she has no friends; she lives her life isolated from almost all human contact. She has a job as a dishwasher in a shabby Mexican restaurant, staying in the kitchen, where she sees none of the customers and few of her coworkers, and in her spare time she works from home as a telemarketer, a disembodied, vaguely neuter voice invading homes she would never dare enter. Bree was born Stanley Schupach but is now in the final stages of her transition into being a woman; all that’s left is her gender reassignment surgery, and she’s counting the days. She’s already had three years of hormone therapy and a number of surgeries to feminize her appearance, but she’s too unsure of the impression she makes on others to feel comfortable around people. In the privacy of her bedroom, she’s like an adolescent observing the changes brought by puberty — she examines her new body in the mirror, gauging its increasing femininity, trying to decide if she can go undetected. In the lingo of the transgender community, she’s living “stealth,” trying desperately to pass for a “real” woman. She wants to be seen the way she sees herself, but she’s so afraid of failing to pass that she’ll barely leave her boxy little house. The only person she’s close to is her therapist, Margaret, who is helping her through the transition. When we see Bree at Margaret’s office, her update on her life since their last appointment is a depressing list of non-events: “I made my sales quota for the week on Tuesday … that pink lambswool cardigan I ordered arrived. …”
Tortured, self-doubting Bree is in every way the opposite of our most recent big-screen transsexual, Breakfast on Pluto’s frivolous, indomitable Kitten and, much as I admired Cillian Murphy’s performance, the complexity of what Felicity Huffman is doing here is of a greater order of magnitude. As a woman playing a man in the process of becoming a woman, Huffman has to reverse-engineer her own gender, and the sensitivity and sincerity she brings to the role is extraordinary. She gets to you because she’s not playing the character’s pain, which would be relatively easy; she’s playing the struggle to hide the pain; she has the raw, paradoxical vulnerability of a person urgently striving not to let any weakness show. Bree works so hard to maintain her dignity and her sense of herself that she’s sacrificed some important aspects of her humanity. Having repressed her own sexual feelings for over 20 years, she’s become an uptight prig, uncomfortable with any expressions of sexuality and almost any kind of pleasure. Just about the only joy in her life is in trying out her newfound femininity; she’s like a kid with a new toy, but in her excessive earnestness she often goes too far or gets the details wrong: Her movements are exaggeratedly dainty, her makeup is the wrong shade for her skin tone and ends abruptly at her jawline, and she dresses like a matronly Barbie doll, in outfits that are conservatively cut and monochromatic — either pink or lavender — with her nails painted to match.
Margaret (the delightful Elizabeth Peña) is supportive but tough; she has no patience with bullshit and won’t allow Bree to lie to her or to herself. When a phone call informs Bree that her single youthful sexual encounter conceived a son, it’s Margaret who demands that she go to New York and deal with the situation rather than wishing it away. The son is 17-year-old Toby Wilkins (Kevin Zegers), who was picked up by the police for hustling and is a recreational drug user. Toby ran away from his home in Kansas after his mother died, leaving him in the care of his unloved stepfather. Though he’s had little formal education, Toby is naturally smart, and his time on the streets has made him worldly and cynical. But at the same time he’s still in many ways a child: Everywhere he goes, he carries a little black-clad action figure, placing it on the headboard of his bed to watch over him while he sleeps. The film’s writer/director, Duncan Tucker, has a simplistic conception of the character: To demonstrate his lack of education, Toby’s dialogue is peppered with lame malapropisms like “I’m not gonna hustle anymore. It’s degradable.” But Zegers rises above the mediocre writing to make Toby a believable adolescent, both endearing and annoying — he actually reminded me a lot of my own 17-year-old brother.
Toby has dreams of going to Los Angeles and beginning a new life and, with some pressure from Margaret, Bree agrees to take him with her as she heads back home to L.A. for her surgery. As she travels, Bree keeps her makeup case always close, a symbol of her constructed femininity and a talisman against unwanted masculinity. She’s too afraid of Toby’s reaction to reveal that she’s his father, so she begins the trip even more anxious and uncomfortable than usual, but gradually her dry sense of humor comes out, and she even begins to relax a little. She falls into maternal behavior, correcting Toby’s speech and making him take his feet off the dashboard. As the title suggests, Transamerica is a road movie, and it fulfills the requirements of the genre — particularly its indie division — bringing back people from Bree and Toby’s pasts and introducing new friends and antagonists. It can be a little much; just when you’re beginning to accept the central contrivance of the plot, the film starts to cry out Look at my quirky outsiders! Look at my grotesque caricatures of Middle Americans! But many of the supporting performances are sound, and the relationship that grows between the two central characters is handled credibly. The free-spirited, blatantly sexual Toby is the complete opposite of uptight Bree, and the conflict between their personalities forces her to relent a bit on her excessive propriety. A series of setbacks leaves Bree frustrated and weary, and we see that being bedraggled actually suits her, makes her more truly, unself-consciously feminine. And when she meets a man who offers assistance and treats her with gallant attentiveness, the crush she develops on him makes her seem girlish and sweet.
Like Bree, the entire film isn’t quite sure of itself; it frequently and often abruptly shifts back and forth between comedy and drama. There may have been some concern that audiences wouldn’t accept the story without a steady allotment of laughs, but this has led to far too many forced jokes and changes in tone that don’t always work. The core of the film is Huffman’s portrayal of Bree’s inner conflict and personal evolution, but its self-conscious indie quirkiness undercuts the gravity of her performance. This is Tucker’s first feature, and it’s a promising beginning; I have no doubt that he’ll produce more accomplished work in the future. I just wish that he had done it here, because Huffman deserves it.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Transamerica / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()