Reviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 02/06/06 09:11:01

"The road to nowhere interesting."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

“A male-to-female transsexual discovers she fathered a son while still a man” seems like a pretty high concept to start from as far as making a film dealing mainly with relationships between people goes. Knocking such a complex idea out of the park would certainly be tricky, but with Transamerica, writer/director Duncan Tucker struggles even to get it out of the infield. Between the warmed-over road trip plot and the largely static characters, there just isn’t much going on here.

Bree (Felicity Huffman), formerly Stanley, is a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual who has been living as a woman in Los Angeles for some time. When she receives a call from a New York jail from a 17-year-old boy looking for Stanley, Bree realizes that the boy is her son – she would rather not make contact, however, hoping to sever ties to her old life as Stanley. When her therapist says she won’t sign Bree’s consent form for her reassignment surgery, though, Bree’s hand is forced.

Through a series of coincidences and aggravating misunderstandings too silly to be worth relating, Bree and son Toby (Kevin Zegers) end up making the trip back to Los Angeles in the form of a cross-country drive. Toby does not know that Bree is actually a man, nor does he know that Bree is really his father. Who wants to guess whether or not he ends up finding these things out?

The basic problem with Transamerica is the two main characters. Since this is a “road movie” for much of the run, the success of the movie rests on the interaction between Bree and Toby. That interaction, however, is limited mostly to Toby being an obnoxious creep and Bree fussing over everything as though she were Adrian Monk. Certainly there is little if any of what you would call “bonding” between the two, and since Bree does not tell Toby who she really is, any bonding is in service of a lie anyway.

Toby does find out eventually, of course, that Bree is Stanley and thus his father. The way in which he finds out is both bafflingly implausible and stunningly repulsive, however; Tucker clearly has no intention of ever making these characters really get along with a solid foundation. Sure, it’s not impossible to think that Bree’s desire not to have Toby find out about his parentage is a realistic response for a transsexual, nor does Toby’s eventual response to the knowledge seem entirely out of line. Neither makes for a particularly good movie, though. There are stories happening every day that are never told in film form because they wouldn’t translate well; Transamerica’s story is one such.

The film finds itself, both thematically and in terms of quality, when Bree and Toby end up in Phoenix, where Bree’s parents and sister live. The family scenes are sometimes a bit exaggerated for comic effect, but by and large we finally get a real sense of the difficulty of people in adjusting to lifestyle choices that are drastically different from what they are used to. Here, as nowhere else in the film, Tucker’s apparent interest in the transsexual struggle for acceptance shines through and actually works for a while.

This segment is like one decent short film in the midst of a bunch of mediocre clichés, however. Tucker spends far too much time on the “characters go on a road trip, meet colorful characters” angle; it’s already been done to death, and since Bree and Toby seem to get almost nothing out of it, it loses most of what should be its purpose.

Felicity Huffman’s performance as Bree is an interesting one, but while it’s good enough to keep the film at least watchable during the worst segments, it’s hardly reinventing the wheel. Indeed, at times it almost seems counter to the point of the film. Bree frequently plays more like a man in drag – one who has some sense for what women do, but whose impression of it is awkward. (Her taste in clothes is clearly supposed to be hideous, and her attempts at lady-like behavior are more than a little stiff.) It’s not a bad performance at all in that respect, but that just seems sort of wrong – sure, depicting a pre-op transsexual as a perfect replica of their new gender is probably a bit disingenuous, but it’s hard to think that Bree should be something of a laughingstock. Yet that’s how it comes off, with her garish pink outfits and irrational fear of unclean things.

An interesting story could certainly be told about someone like Bree, and maybe even someone like Toby at the same time. This isn’t that story, however. In trying both to explore Bree’s new life and the ramifications of having a son, Tucker ends up doing neither especially well, ending up with a weak road movie whose main characters undergo very little significant character development. (Toby, I would say, has none at all throughout the film; Bree changes more but the changes don’t seem deserved. It’s hard to imagine anyone warming up to the idea of suddenly being a parent in the space of just a few days, especially when the kid in question is Toby.)

It’s always a shame when films start out with an interesting concept and then choose to go a route riddled with clichés in telling the story. Transamerica is certainly not unwatchable, but its heavy reliance on convention despite an unconventional heroine makes it much less interesting than it could have been.

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