Transamerica transcends convention with Huffman’s help

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Transamerica, presented by The Weinstein Company and IFC Films, has gotten a lot of attention in the past months, mostly for Felicity Huffman’s stunning, Oscar-nominated turn as a man days away from sexual reassignment surgery. All of the gender-bending hubbub aside, Transamerica avoids the obvious gimmickry and instead stands as a unique coming-of-age tale. Writer and director Duncan Tucker infuses the intense movie with an undercurrent of dark humor and witty one-liners. Transamerica tells the story of Bree (Huffman), a quiet and conservative transgender woman, formerly known as Stanley, who is anxiously awaiting the final surgery that will complete her transformation. Just when it seems she has almost completed her quest, she receives a surprising phone call from Toby (Kevin Zegers, a far cry from his starring role in Air Bud), a jailed teenage prostitute claiming to be the result of a short-lived college relationship of Bree’s. Bree’s therapist (Elizabeth PeA?a) insists that she confront her son before undergoing her final surgery. Bree flies to New York to bail Toby out of jail, posing as a church missionary, her true identity. From there, the two embark on a cross-continental road trip to Los Angeles, Bree intent on making her surgery, and Toby eager to pursue a career in Hollywood. During the trip, the two forge a unique bond and are introduced to a wide variety of eccentric characters, including Calvin (Graham Greene), a surprising love interest for Bree, and Bree’s family, who seem less than supportive of her sexual reassignment. Given the subject matter of the movie, it would be all too easy to categorize it as a transgender-acceptance film, but the beauty of Transamerica is that it transcends that label and opts instead for the more universal theme of self-acceptance, whoever that self happens to be. What the viewer sees in Bree, and in Toby, too, for that matter, is someone who is searching for her identity. Bree isn’t interested in making a big political or social statement; all she wants is to be comfortable in her own skin. Everyone’s favorite desperate housewife Huffman breathes life into the film, filling Bree with a hopeful sadness that is mesmerizing. Huffman gives a rare, egoless performance in a glamorized industry, totally transforming her appearance and lowering her voice to a dusky tenor. Virtually unrecognizable, she becomes Bree, slipping into a man’s body without resorting to an overblown caricature that might be expected from a lesser actress. The unassuming dignity Huffman gives Bree’s unconventional dilemma makes it universally relatable. As Huffman’s parents, Fionnula Flannigan and Burt Young provide an outrageously entertaining counter to Huffman’s dark humor. Huffman’s interactions with her family result in some of Transamerica’s golden moments, as she wordlessly expresses her painful desperation, facing a family member who, as Flannigan puts it, love her “but don’t respect [her].” Unfortunately, Huffman’s undeniable brilliance can’t mask some flaws in the plot. Bree’s decision to hide her identity results in an uncomfortable tension throughout the film, especially when Toby unwittingly tries to romance Bree, his biological father. Although nothing comes of it, there is no effort in the script to address it and its effects on their relationship. While Huffman illuminates Bree and what makes her tick, we aren’t offered the same view of Toby. Zegers does what he can with the part, but he is limited to his character’s seeming apathy. In the end, though, Transamerica is the story of a person yearning for dignity in the face of a judgmental world. Thanks to Huffman’s nuanced, breathtaking performance and obvious respect for Bree, it succeeds.