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Twin Town High (vol. 8)
Transamerica: Transsexual Picaresque
Wednesday 21 December @ 18:34:23
by Paul Bachleitner
“Transamerica” lead Felicity Huffman may be the first person in cinema history to appear in full-frontal nudity as a man and as a woman in the same film. Not that “Transamerica” needs to sell itself on gimmicks, but its attention to the sublime experience of cinematic surprise elevates it to the kind of dark horse beauty of a film only seen once a year, if that. Last year that film was “Sideways.” This year it’s “Transamerica.”
“Desperate Housewives” brought Huffman an Emmy, her performance
as the protagonist of “Transamerica” should launch her to icon status
when she wins a best acting Oscar for it this February. In a perfect world Huffman
might win the Best Actor and Actress Oscars. Her protagonist is actually a male
whose birth name is Stanley. But Stanley goes by the name of Bree because his
psychological identity is female. Bree, however, plans to have a transsexual
operation so her physical and psychological identities can become one. Could
anyone picture Huffman’s “Houswives” co-star Eva Longoria
doing this role?
Huffman’s transformation into Bree is so complete it’s difficult
to identify the gender of the actor without knowing it in advance. A creative
makeup and wardrobe crew is partly responsible. Pale cosmetics dampen her features
in a way that suggests a man trying to hide a strong jaw line rather than a
woman making hers appear harsher.
But Huffman’s talent drives much more of the transformation. She trained
herself to speak five octaves lower than her normal speaking voice and fashioned
a gait and mannerisms like those of a man trying to act like a woman, à
la Dustin Hoffman
She also invests Bree’s eccentricities with a depth that stretches far
beyond Hollywood stereotypes of men dressing as women. The film opens with a
delightful scene in which Bree is watching a video of a speech therapist who
says in an overtly feminine voice, “This is the voice I want to use.”
When Bree mimics the line, Huffman could’ve easily overplayed the scene
for jokes or misplayed it and seemed like a freak.
Instead she wears a frown of concentration attenuated by the rote quality of
her delivery, as if Bree has been through the drill too many times to be obsessed
with how well she performs. It’s a small stroke of genius that she expands
upon later as Bree’s idiosyncratic vocabulary choices emerge. Bree asks
whether you inhabit a room rather than whether you live here, and often she
can’t resist inserting French phrases, such as quelle dommage (“what
The film’s premise is established quickly. A week before Bree’s
transsexual surgery she receives a phone call from a New York juvenile penitentiary
that claims to be holding her son. An experimental heterosexual encounter 17
years ago during college apparently occurred without protection. Her therapist
(Elizabeth Pena, “La Bamba” and “Lone Star”) refuses
to sign a release for the surgery until Bree travels to New York to confront
The classic setup parallels those of other road films about identity. “The
Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” immediately comes to mind.
But “Transamerica” writer and director Duncan Tucker develops more
dramatic impact, although he isn’t above camp humor. When Bree arrives
in New York she bails out her son, but can’t admit she’s his transsexual
father. So she tells him she’s a missionary from The Church of the Potential
The film finds plenty of humor in her religious guise (at one point Bree receives
a hat saying “I’m Proud to Be a Christian”), and Toby (newcomer
Kevin Zegers) isn’t knowledgeable enough to see through it. But he’s
beautiful enough to turn tricks—or assignations as Bree terms them—to
earn cash for drugs.
has the looks and stature of a young Brad Pitt. His poise during several potentially
compromising scenes is darkly charismatic, including fully and partially nude
shots in an intense prostitution scene. Toby is immature and ignorant. He steals.
He throws tantrums. As Bree drives him cross country back to her home in L.A.,
he imagines he’ll become a film star when they get there. Yet Zegers balances
the edginess that allowed Toby to survive on the New York streets with an essential
innocence in his watery, puppy dog eyes.
The film encounters a few rough spots after Bree first meets Toby and drives
him from New York to Appalachia to return him to his stepparents’ home.
The sequence reveals some necessary exposition about Toby’s difficult
childhood, but the film glosses over it too quickly and includes a piano and
banjo interlude intended to lighten material that needed more gravity.
But viewers can dismiss the sequence (as Tucker might have done) with the engaging
sequences that follow it. One in particular brings Bree and Toby to the house
of Bree’s therapist’s friend in Texas. Inside is a group of housewife
trannies singing “Home on the Range.” Bree apologizes to Toby about
exposing him to these ersatz women. But during a pitstop on the roadside after
she and Toby leave, he espies her urinating while holding her … you guessed
it, penis (a very authentic-looking dildo the filmmakers purchased for a mere
The cross country trip comprises the bulk of the film and culminates, as it
must, with Bree and Toby’s arrival at her parents’ house in Arizona
to begin an amazing third act. Bree hasn’t told Toby she’s his father
and he hasn’t guessed. There’s also the expected familial dysfunction
in reaction to Bree’s female identity. But the film discovers new sources
of eccentricity, new unexpected conflicts that continually produce surprises.
Bree’s father (Burt Young, “Polly” of the “Rocky”
film franchise) is Jewish. Her mother (Fionnula Flanagan, “Picture of
Dorian Gray”) with red nails and lipstick, white-maned hair and a penchant
for blue clothing is a heavily pampered Christian. Add a troubled sister, and
the ingredients are perfect for a volatile confrontation.
Tucker steers clear of the inherent melodramatic pratfalls by suppressing the
brewing explosions until the pressure can’t build any higher. The climactic
scene between Bree and her son is one of the most unsettling and striking scenes
of any film in recent years, perhaps (at risk of hyperbole) among the most memorable
of all time.
Just as remarkably, “Transamerica” is the first film Tucker has
written or directed. No film this year offers as much freshness and surprise
from front to back. Tucker has chosen an unusual protagonist in Bree, but has
crafted a story that is believable because it unfolds Bree’s character
along a classic storyline—finding the courage through a journey to reveal
one’s inner nature to others and gain acceptance. It’s a storyteller’s
wisdom well beyond that of most first-time filmmakers and very deserving of
consideration come awards time. ||
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