Duncan Tucker’s indie film Transamerica revolves around a conservative, male-to-female transsexual named Bree Osbourne (Desperate Housewives’ Felicity Huffman). A week away from Bree’s much anticipated sexual reassignment surgery she receives a phone call from a teenage hustler named Toby (Kevin Zegers) looking for his estranged father Stanley — Bree’s former male self.
Bree wants to ignore this call and go on with her new life but her shrink thinks she should face her past. So off goes Bree to bail her son out of a New York City jail and take him back to LA with her, all the while trying her best to avoid actually revealing her trans identity and that she’s Toby’s parent.
What results are exchanges that clash and spark. Tucker excels in playing the polarities of Toby and Bree off of one another. Where Bree is uptight and understandably cautious about showing her body, Toby is laid back and lounges about in his underwear. Where Bree flees the openness of a group of trans people they encounter on the road, Toby embraces them. True to its road movie genre, the film’s detours serve to bring Bree and Toby together in rather sweet ways. When forced to make a surprise visit to Bree’s family, Toby comes to Bree’s defence in the face of her viciously insulting mother (a brilliantly brutal performance by Fionnula Flanagan).
Unfortunately, despite Bree and Toby’s growing connection, the revelations in this film come not from confessions inspired by trust but from comical accidents played for laughs or incredibly uncomfortable confrontations that often end in anger or violence. I left the theatre feeling conflicted, yet the more I tried to dissect the film in search of its flaws, the more I rediscovered its little gems.
I was nervous about how this film might try to make transsexuality pal-atable for the masses and all the possible ways in which that could go wrong. Both Tucker and Huffman consulted several prominent trans women from Deep Stealth, a US-based trans media outlet (Calpernia Addams and Andrea James both appear in the film) to ensure a believable and respectful portrayal of Bree.
Emmy Award-winner Huffman delivers with great distinction. Her performance is worth the ticket price alone, and has earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress. Transamerica is definitely not a deep exploration of trans issues but thankfully it isn’t a watered-down mainstream movie either. Transamerica is a likable road trip comedy about family and connection. The humour and compassion of this film will likely hold the conventional Desperate Housewives audience while still having enough awareness and honesty to engage its queer audience.