Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Transamerica skims the surface

Film is really about lies, deception and evasion

Credit: Xtra West Files

A friend of mine has a little saying: Gay is over. By that he means queer people are so much a part of the everyday fabric of society-our images and stories are everywhere, ad agencies direct marketing campaigns at us, we buy houses, we have children-that we risk disappearing altogether. We are no longer dangerous, outsiders, abnormal.

Take writer/director Duncan Tucker’s new film Transamerica. Transamerica is not shocking. It is not controversial. It is not even particularly groundbreaking.

Rather, it is a pleasant, well acted, almost conventional road movie about two people getting to know each other as they travel from New York to California in a tacky green, late-model car. They get into some trouble, they share dreamy talk and they have a few laughs along the way. One just happens to be a conservative, classical-music-loving tranny and the other is a drug-snorting teenage hustler with a chip on his shoulder.

Felicity Huffman plays Bree, a preoperative male-to-female transsexual who discovers she has a teenage son just before she is about to go under the knife. Her therapist won’t sign the consent papers for her final surgery until she travels to New York to confront the past.

Once in the Big Apple, she poses as a church missionary and bails out the son she never knew she had. Toby, played by Canadian actor Kevin Zegers (he was in the Air Bud movies) is full of swagger, brooding looks and is overtly sexual — but we know deep down he is an insecure, troubled boy from an abusive home who desperately needs love.

Bree chooses to pretend to be something she is not (she only reluctantly reveals her truth to Toby when circumstances dictate she must), and that is what this movie is about. It’s about lies, deception, covering up our feelings, evasion and the consequences which result from living that way. It is not a deep, penetrating look at the life of a transsexual.

It is almost as if you could take the whole tranny angle out of Transamerica and the film wouldn’t be all that much different. The important thing is Toby is her child and she hides that from him.

There’s a lot of Oscar buzz about Huffman’s role (it’s already won her a Best Actress Golden Globe). Maybe too much. She does not deliver the kind of bravura performance you’d expect from all the hype but, hey, expectations will kill you every time.

That said, there are some truly moving moments, especially when Bree breaks down to her therapist (played by Elizabeth Peña) right after the final surgery. She was expecting the day she finally got her penis removed to be the happiest day of her life-unfortunately, the world outside keeps going on and the guilt she feels toward Toby intrudes.

Huffman does not steal the movie, highjack the movie, hold up the movie, detain the movie or any of the other superlatives I’ve read in other reviews. In fact, Transamerica’s strength probably lies in its ensemble acting.

Zegers is fantastic as the troubled son Toby. He researched the role by hanging out with several street hustlers in Toronto and it pays off. You always get the sense there’s a lot more going on in Toby’s head then he lets on, and Zegers has nailed down the manipulative, charming, suspicious nature of his character admirably. One scene in a bar immediately after he has serviced a “date” is quite poignant. It made me wish there was more of an exploration of Toby’s shame and pain.

The scenes when Bree and Toby visit Bree’s family are also standouts. Sister Sydney (Carrie Preston) is a recovering druggie happy Bree’s “situation” takes some of the heat off of her. Mother Elizabeth is an uptight, vain, pampered princess (expertly played by veteran Fionnula Flanagan). And dad Murray (Burt Young) — well, he’s just a good old boy oblivious to everything around him. The movie really comes to life midway but alas, its life is short-lived.

The dysfunction of this family is really the only successful comedy in the movie. Many of the other lines are flat, too obvious and a bit too farcical. Transamerica often seems like a script unsure of what it wants to be: A standard road movie? A serious drama? A light-hearted comedy? It’s all over the place.

It’s a shame. Because throughout the film little moments arise where some real human drama unfolds. And you think: all right, now they’re really going to get into it. This is going somewhere. Then thud. Plunk. Nothing. The film reverts back to being a superficial look at Bree and Toby, which only skims the surface.

There’s an analogy to be drawn between Bree’s struggle for gender identity and the movie itself. Transamerica feels like there’s a great movie there somewhere screaming to get out, trapped in the body of a rather average film.

Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby. Huffman could win the Oscar. Brokeback Mountain may take Best Picture. Capote might get the nod for Best Actor. Gay is over. We’ve arrived. Or have we?

During the filming of Transamerica in the middle of Arizona, the crew was instructed, if asked by the townspeople, to say the film was about “a woman and her son going on a cross-country road trip.” Tucker was afraid if the whole truth came out there would be trouble renting the halls they needed for crew-holding areas near the set.

Tucker played it safe in Arizona, and he certainly plays it safe on the screen.

Transamerica could have been so much more. A pity.