Trans formation

Felicity Huffman's terrific, but Transamerica lacks edge

Transamerica written and directed by Duncan Tucker, with Felicity Huffman and Kevin Zegers. 103 minutes. A Weinstein Company release. Opens Friday (December 16). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN

Felicity Huffman is a great actor. she isn’t a great beauty in the traditional Tinseltown sense, but trading the allure of Desperate Housewifedom for a role as a man is a brave move not many of Hollywood’s glamour-pusses would make.

In Transamerica, Huffman plays Bree Osbourne, a transsexual on the verge of gender-reassignment surgery. She receives a call one night from a teenager claiming to be the son of Stanley, the man Bree used to be. Toby (Kevin Zegers) is a New York street hustler who needs to post bail. For reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, Bree’s shrink (Elizabeth Peña) refuses to sign the recommendation form for Bree’s surgery until she confronts this reminder of a past she longs to forget. So Bree and Toby cross America together, meeting his family and hers, and as time passes, Bree’s secrets are literally stripped away.

Writer-director Duncan Tucker has an ear for dialogue, even if some of it isn’t his (a line about veganism is lifted straight from The Simpsons), and an eye for talent, as his choice of leading lady proves.

Huffman’s performance is a technical marvel. She’s deepened her voice and mastered the walk of a man who hasn’t quite mastered the walk of a woman. Audience members who don’t know her could be forgiven for any confusion they have about her sex.

Yet there’s something unsatisfying about Transamerica as a whole. At the beginning, Bree tells her doctor that she’s disgusted by her penis. Near the end, there’s a heartbreaking scene when Toby, who knows what Bree is but not who she is, comes on to her, saying, “I see you as you really are,” which is just what Bree has been longing for.

But between those bookends, Bree’s gender is almost irrelevant. As far as the parent-child relationship goes, she could be a straight person of either sex and the story wouldn’t change much. Bree’s fear of exposure could be caused by body issues, her redneck surroundings or both, but there’s little exploration of either possibility.

Transamerica avoids common stereotypes: Bree’s not glitzy or sassy, she doesn’t call anyone “girlfriend” and, upon being urged to wear something pink and feathery, she says emphatically, “I’m a transsexual, not a transvestite.”

But anyone waiting for a high-profile film that goes deeper into those distinctions, or trans issues in general, should keep waiting, cuz Transamerica ain’t it.

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