Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 09/01/06 23:53:57

"Good-hearted but calculatedly unradical."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"Transamerica" is "Brokeback Mountain"'s little sister, though not as universally tragic as the cowboy film. It plays out with deep compassion but with little insight into the particulars of its subject a transwoman who's discovered she has a 17-year-old son from when she was in guy mode. It's as if writer-director Duncan Tucker had a great gimmicky idea for a conflict movie, did some research into transgenderism, and let the rest of it slide.

The movie is constructed as a road movie with a difference. Bree (Felicity Huffman) is a week away from sex-reassignment surgery when she hears that (A) she has a son and (B) he's in jail in New York. She bails him out, and he turns out to be a drug-snorting hustler named Toby (Kevin Zegers) who wants to go to L.A. to be a gay-porn star. Transamerica comes awfully close to saying: See, this kid shares this tranny's genes, of course he's a fucked-up fag. (There's a moment when Toby stands in front of a mirror holding Bree's nightgown in front of him, perhaps indicating 'Like father/mother, like son/possibly daughter.')

I stopped believing in the movie's idea of transgender fairly early, when the fuddy Bree doesn't even know what 'GG' means it has to be defined for her and, presumably, for the well-meaning but clueless indie audience who haven't run across the transcommunity's slang for 'genetic girl.' (The newer trans term for non-transpeople, "cisgendered," seems well beyond this movie.) Bree's counselor (Elizabeth Pea) at one point arranges for her to stay at the house of a post-op transwoman who's throwing a full-out trans party. That's about as close as the movie comes to portraying the transgendered as anything but timid victims. It's unfair to hang a lot of expectations on one character, but Bree is very much in the mold of the transwoman Kim in the British comedy Different for Girls, who was so prim and respectable (to make up for all the tranny psychos and/or sluts in movies) she was dead boring.

Felicity Huffman at least gives Bree some spark and acid. Her Bree (ne Stanley) seems to have come through a lot to reach even the shaky place of self-acceptance she's at, and the movie ruthlessly dismantles that. She's forced to reunite with her family her horrid mother (Fionnula Flanagan), her easy-going dad (Burt Young), her alcoholic sister (Carrie Preston). She loses her hormone pills when her car is stolen. About the only break she gets is when a friendly Indian named Calvin (Graham Greene, effortlessly injecting much-needed serenity into his few minutes of the movie) lets her and Toby crash at his house. Calvin isn't the only Indian reference in the script, either Tucker works in more Indian call-outs than in any film since mid-period Oliver Stone. What it has to do with transgender is for others to guess at.

Transamerica is comfort food for a comfortable audience, with the TV-familiar Huffman (however vulnerable her performance) reassuring viewers that she's really a real woman underneath that unflattering make-up and harsh lighting (there's only one scene, with Bree reclining poolside with Toby, where the camera softens and allows her some delicacy). As a rambling indie ride, it's often enjoyable; the performances keep it buoyant. But transgender is still a fairly new subject for movies, at least in non-exploitative form, and it's still in the play-it-safe area occupied by other well-meaning films like Normal and Soldier's Girl. It doesn't risk the tangle of real-life emotions and flaws, like the documentary Southern Comfort (not the Walter Hill actioner).

It's good, I guess, that a compassionate movie about a transwoman was made at all, and seen by more people than would've bothered with it if it hadn't gotten Oscar nominations. One day the trans community will have its "Brokeback Mountain," a wounding piece of art that goes deeper than an agenda or good intentions. That's for tomorrow, perhaps; right now it's still yesterday.

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