I’ll come right to the point: See this movie.
Yes, Transamerica is the debut feature from writer-director Duncan Tucker. And yes, that means that this film tries very hard to impress you and get you to like it, and has a couple of missteps along the way as a result. But that doesn’t keep it from being a great little movie — and one that actually does impress you and make you like it. It’s also one of the best films to emerge in 2005.
Transamerica is one of those movies that studios thought might have a chance for a spot on a 10-best list, so arrangements were made for Asheville reviewers to see it way back before Christmas. I knew nothing about it at the time. The film’s booker assured me that it was wonderful, that she’d seen it twice, and that it just got better on repeat viewings — but then she was, after all, in the business of selling me on the movie. But she was right. After three viewings, I’m ready to agree with her: It just gets better.
Of course, now the film has gotten greater exposure thanks to Felicity Huffman getting the Oscar nomination for best actress for her performance — and if she doesn’t win, it will be one of the Academy’s most shameful moments (something it hardly needs more of). It’s something of a cliche to say this, but the severely glammed-down Huffman doesn’t so much play the pre-operative transsexual Bree Osbourne as she becomes her. This is quite simply one of the great performances. And it’s housed in a film that is at least very nearly worthy of it.
Transamerica starts off a little clunkily, with a scene of Bree practicing to make her voice more feminine, but it quickly hits its stride when the plot kicks in. It turns out that Bree — back when she was Stanley — had a brief fling and has a hitherto unknown son, Toby (Kevin Zegers, Dawn of the Dead), who has gotten into trouble with the law (hustling and possession) on the other side of the country. Bree’s response is to send money and otherwise ignore this intrusion on her plans, but her therapist (Elizabeth Pena, The Incredibles) refuses to sign the final papers that will allow Bree the operation to transform her into a woman until she actually deals with the situation.
Thereby hangs the plot: Bree dealing with and getting to know her son without telling him that she was his father (she palms herself off as a Born Again Christian social worker from “the Church of the Potential Father”). Tucker handles the material in a comedic manner, playing off the differences between the two. Bree is by nature uptight and proper; Toby is anything but. He lives in a filthy little rat-hole of an apartment (“How many … people inhabit this … place?” Bree cautiously asks upon seeing it) and his ambition is to dye his hair blonde and get a job in Hollywood in gay porn (“They love blondes out there … bodacious blonde bottoms … not that I’m a bottom or anything”)
Rather than just turn him loose, Bree ends up buying a cheap car and driving him cross country with the idea of dropping him off with his stepfather in Kentucky. Things don’t work out exactly — or even remotely — as planned, and the trip becomes an ever-deeper bonding experience. In itself, this concept makes Transamerica little more than a variant on the standard “road” movie; in fact, the device of depositing Toby with a relative, and how that plays out, is almost certainly borrowed from an even earlier source, Mitchell Leisen’s Remember the Night (1940). But the results are anything but standard.
There is a remarkable depth of feeling and a true sense of a growing relationship here — even on the occasions when the movie starts to slide off track. An incipient romance between Bree and a Native American man (Graham Greene, Snow Dogs) that briefly threatens to send the film into Priscilla, Queen of the Desert territory is the most notable near-false move.
By turns hysterically funny and heartbreaking, Transamerica is a film of tremendous warmth, charm and perception anchored to a central performance of unique power. Rated R for sexual content, nudity and drug use.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke