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"TRANSAMERICA"
(2005) (Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A man who's about to undergo a sex change operation must deal with the troubled teenage son he never knew he had.
PLOT:
Born Stanley Osbourne, but always feeling she was a woman trapped inside a man's body, Bree (FELICITY HUFFMAN) who now dresses and tries to look, sound and act like a woman, believes she's ready for her final gender transformation -- surgery. Yet, her therapist, Margaret (ELIZABETH PENA), isn't so sure about the restaurant worker and part-time telemarketer's state of mind. And when she learns that Stanley/Bree has a son from a one-night stand in the past, she won't approve the surgery until Bree deals with the matter.

This has come up due to a phone call from New York where the police have 17-year-old Toby (KEVIN ZEGERS) in custody for shoplifting. The boy claims his mother is dead, that he doesn't get along with his abusive stepfather and that Stanley is his biological father. Accordingly, Bree travels to New York and bails him out, but not as his father/mother, but instead posing as a church missionary.

Toby wants to meet his father who he believes is a success, and thus Bree rents a car and the two drive from New York to Los Angeles, with her unsure when or if she'll inform him of her identity. Along the way, they have run-ins with an assortment of characters, including Calvin (GRAHAM GREENE) who takes a liking to Bree, seemingly unaware of his/her gender. When they reach Phoenix, they visit Bree's troubled sister Sidney (CARRIE PRESTON) and their parents -- Elizabeth (FIONNULA FLANAGAN) and Murray (BURT YOUNG) -- who still haven't accepted their son's gender changing decision.

With Toby figuring out part of Bree's secret before she admits to it, the unlikely duo continues on their road-based journey toward Los Angeles and an eventual resolution of their unique familial relationship.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
"This is the voice," says Bree (Felicity Huffman), practicing her woman's pitch. As if to do battle with the world, she prepares carefully before heading out the door, ensuring that her body is properly contained, her nails appropriately pink, her lipstick perfectly blushed.

If she's not precisely the image on her "Glamour" magazine, she's as close as most mortal women might be. Bree means to make the case to her therapist Margaret (Elizabeth Peņa), that she's ready for surgery -- her year in transition is nearly done, her hormones are aligned, and it's time. "This is the voice."

Or, maybe not. Sitting in Margaret's office at the start of "Transamerica," Bree admits in a gush that well, she's had a phone call raising the wee problem of the son she fathered when she was Stanley, and much as she wants to put that self behind her, Margaret insists that integrate. "Stanley's life is your life," she smiles, soothing. "This is a part of your body that cannot be discarded."

This is the sort of language that makes gender so perplexing and so rigid at the same time. What does it have to do with bodies, lives, and names? How can it determine who you are? Or at least how others see you, which amounts to much the same thing if you're inclined to want approval or feel desired, or even just to get along.

And so Bree must face that past she thought was over, in the form of a 17-year-old Calvin-Klein-model-boy named Toby (Kevin Zegers). She heads to NYC to bail him out of "downtown lockup," where he's residing since he tried to shoplift a frog. Yes, the child is looking for help, and Bree pretends to be a Christian missionary, doing good work under the auspices of the Church of the Potential Father.

The fact that Bree is not only determined and focused but also rather clever, often at her own expense (or at least, at an expense that you get because you know her dilemma and Toby does not) makes her endearing. It also makes you wonder about the series of decisions she makes in order that the film earns its cutesy title -- she and Toby end up driving cross country, getting to know one another and meeting each other's families in order to find themselves.

First stop: Kentucky, where Toby's redneck stepfather lives in a trailer, apparently so stuck in his stereotype that he can't keep his hands off Toby even for an evening. Horrified that her son has been so ill-treated as a youngster, and considering that this may explain his current cockiness and half-assed hustling, she feels she must act.

It also means that their journey will continue, as Bree can't leave Toby in Kentucky, having witnessed this horror. And so, because Bree can't bring confess her actual relationship to Toby and he's not inclined to take advice from a church lady, they ride along encased in a kind of dull tension, ever on the edge of revelation, yet hanging back... because the movie must go on for another hour or so.

The episodic structure of "Transamerica" isn't so tedious as its gentle pokes at conventions are a means to make Bree's situation both affecting and palatable for an imagined mainstream audience. This means that the conflict between parent and child must accommodate or reflect the sorts of anxieties that such viewers recognize and smile at, tiffs that don't quite reach crisis points, but instead allow the free-to-be-you-and-me vibe to permeate the film.

Toby announces, in an effort to impress his kind driver, to give up hustling because, he says, "It's degradable." Bree can't help herself, and corrects him: "Degrading." So now you know, in case you missed it the first five times, that Bree's a stickler and Toby now has a mission, to trouble her sense of order just enough to assert himself and disrupt her seeming security.

Or so he thinks. They're headed for an inevitable collision, occasioned by a loss of funds and Bree's decision to bring Toby to her parents' pink and beige home in Phoenix, where her parents, Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan) and Murray (Burt Young), revisit their discomfort with her "change." As Bree's car has long since died, they hitch a ride with the kindhearted Calvin Two Goats (Graham Greene), who takes a liking to Bree.

The movie supposes that Calvin doesn't "know" her secret. By this time, Toby has discovered she has a penis, having spotted it while she relieved herself during a roadside pause, rather carelessly, given all the concern she's displayed about hiding the details of her anatomy. And so Toby is unnerved that Calvin might find Bree attractive, as the "deception," as he sees it, replicates the one he endured.

At the same time, however, the film doesn't allow for much identification on Toby's part. He leans heavily on his little-boy-lost affect, going so far as to lay himself out on a bed and attempt to seduce Bree -- his thanks for her kindness and generosity. In his mind -- perhaps -- he's playing gay boy, girlish boy, and maybe even stud-like boy, all at once, laid across the bed with pouty lips and eyes offering a come hither look from beneath his stringy bangs. That the movie can't explore or even spend much time on this particular transgression -- incestuous desire, ambiguously gendered to boot -- exposes a distressing lack of nerve. The pain and betrayal can only lead to forgiveness, Lifetime-style.

More compellingly, the film's resistance to grappling with the interrelations of gender and sex suggests an investment in artifice, which is not in itself a problem (gender being a lifelong series of performative gestures, as in "the voice" Bree works to perfect). And yet "Transamerica" stops short, settles for the familiar "alternative family" rather than questioning all those systems of assessment and measurements of morality that make the very concept of "alternative" necessary. The film rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed October 17, 2005 / Posted December 30, 2005


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