"Lord of the Rings," tranny style?
That's how director Duncan Tucker describes "Transamerica," a road-trip film that's primarily a vehicle for "Desperate Housewives" star Felicity Huffman. "Frodo and Bree have to go on a journey to get rid of something they don't want," he says on the commentary track. "With Frodo, it's the ring; with Bree, it's her son. And they return changed."
If you listen long enough, you'll hear a litany of literary and film comparisons from the ambitious first-time director, including nods to Shakespeare and "Easy Rider." And if you hear him out, chances are that an otherwise simple and straightforward film with abundantly recognizable conventions will start to feel slightly more organic and complex.
You get your first lesson shortly after the opening credits, when Huffman's character is pulling on her hose and make-up—literally "girdling" her loins for battle, Tucker suggests, which is why an African battle song was used for the sequence. He/she is a man in the process of becoming a woman, having already undergone three years of hormone therapy, several plastic surgeries, electrolysis, counseling, and voice lessons. Next week he/she's on track to take the final step: the sexual reassignment surgery that will turn that "outie" into an "innie." Playing in the background is an actual instructional DVD from deepstealth.com on "Finding a Female Voice," and as uptight Sabrina "Bree" Osborne, nee Stanley Schupak, straightens a picture on the wall featuring African women who have stretched their necks to conform to tribal notions of beauty, he/she continues to experiment with voices in a higher register until one feels right.
It's easy to see why Huffman earned an Oscar nomination. Not only did she allow the make-up people to make her look more mannish, but she also developed a walk and affected mannerisms and attitudes worthy of a 1950's librarian—a prim and proper demeanor that's totally believable as an act of overcompensation from a male who desperately wants to become a housewife. And everything is on-track until a phone call (and Bree's honesty) derails the transgender express. Out of the blue Bree learns that she has a son from a college fling, a 17 year old now living in New York. "Why don't you call your mother?" Bree says in her female voice, not tipping her hand that the lad is actually talking to his dad. Well, it turns out that the mother's dead, and that leaves Bree with a dilemma—one that bubbles to the surface when she's in her last consultation with a therapist prior to getting that precious written permission she needs to have the final sex-change surgery. When she mentions she has a son, that changes everything, and the financially strapped Bree has to go to New York to confront her past.
Kevin Zegers is perfect as Bree's son, with a personality that all but illustrates that fruit doesn't fall far from the tree. It turns out that young Toby (a quiet and reserved fellow, all things considered) has been working as a hustler and has dreams of becoming a porn star in California. With her operation hanging in the balance, she has to come to terms with "family." But of course it's tough telling your son that his long-lost father is really a woman, so Bree poses as a church worker in order to bail him out.
"The movie's not about a female transsexual," Tucker says. "The subject of the movie is growing up, coming of age, parenthood." And as much as she's wanting to deny the boy, Bree's parenting instincts kick in almost instantly. When Toby says he's thinking of hitchhiking to California, she's so afraid that his pretty-boy looks will get him in trouble that she offers to take him with her on a drive across America. That's how this pair comes to know each other, and how viewers come to realize that the film is all about accepting people for what they are and giving them respect, no matter how "off" we think they may be. For a film about a transsexual and a hustler, the script by Tucker has more humor than drama, though the humor is as quiet and understated as the rest of the film.
"Transamerica" is a solid film, but a quietly unspectacular one. Bree's librarian-like personality sets the tone, and while that air of reserve and tolerance makes for an interesting character study, it's no tonic for a plot that's dependent upon episodic adventure. Mother and son are so low-key that it's a journey propelled by external factors rather than internal drives, and those episodes are fairly predictable. When the pair picks up a hitchhiker, you know something's going to happen. When an American Indian named Calvin (Graham Greene) runs into them and you can see the glint in his eye, you know there's going to be a "Tootsie" moment. And when Bree drags Toby to visit her parents in Arizona (veterans Burt Young and Fionnula Flanagan)—parents whom she told her psychiatrist and therapist were dead—there's the predictable "you can't go home again" situation. Even the most surprising scene gives itself away well before the payoff.
But as slight and familiar as the plot is, watching Huffman is like watching Hal Holbrook playing Mark Twain in a one-man show. This feels like her one man-woman show—a small stage for a big performance—and she pulls it off.
"Transamerica" is rated "R" for sexual content, nudity, language, and drug use. The nudity is all male, with two scenes involving Zegers and frontal nudity shots of Huffman as both a man and a woman.
Video: Tucker says he deliberately shot in Super 16 because he liked the look of slightly washed-out colors and "grit," which gives it more of a home-movie quality. Well, that's an overstatement. You would hardly know that they used a hand-held camera for most of the film, it's held so steady and doesn't pan in that typically jerky or quick-cut way that's typical of home movies. And there's not all that much grain or faded color—just enough to take the "brightness" off, which makes the film look more natural and worn. No complaints here, in other words. "Transamerica" is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, "enhanced" for 16x9 televisions.
Audio: The audio is English Dolby Digital 5.1, which delivers a robust sound that's perfect for the David Mansfield score and varied songs that cover a wide range of Americana and country-folk-rock music, including the Oscar-nominated end-credits song by Dolly Parton, "Travelin' Thru." Subtitles are in English and Spanish. Again, no complaints.
Extras: Tucker's commentary is excellent. You'd expect a this-is-how-I-did-it session from a new filmmaker to aspiring Indie directors, but Tucker offers an in-depth commentary that's geared toward the film itself. Whether its learning about the fake penis prosthetic that Huffman wore (and the way they rigged a hot-water bottle under her armpit for the urination scene) or hearing how much they had to pay for a used cowboy hat, it's a commentary that's crammed full of details—many of which help us to develop a greater appreciation for the film.
The other extras are more standard. There's a staged conversation with Tucker and Huffman, and another with Zegers in which the director prompts his stars like an interviewer, and outtakes from those interviews that have been spliced into a "Travelin' Through: Behind-the-Scenes" feature that focuses on how Parton came onboard. The country singer appears in interviews and in rehearsal, and the full music video is also included. Rounding out the extras are a better than average (because of its honesty) blooper reel and the original trailer.
Bottom Line: "Transamerica" employs too many of the standard road-trip conventions to be come a classic film, but Huffman's performance is a virtual one-person show, one which makes this a journey worth taking . . . and retaking.