If Judge Jennifer Malkowski ever decides to become a guy, she wants Dolly Parton to write her a transitioning theme song, too!
"Life is a journey. Bring an open mind."
As a biological man trying with all her might to fully become a woman, Felicity Huffman gives a performance well worth the hype. Although the film is determined to sell itself on her transformation alone, the best reason to see Transamerica is its sweet, funny, unassuming story.
Facts of the Case
Bree Osbourne (Felicity Huffman) is a transsexual woman who gets a giant, unwelcome surprise just a week before her final surgery. She receives a call from a young man claiming to be her son—a living reminder of her biological past as a man named Stanley. Her therapist (Elizabeth Peña) requires her to go to New York and get to know the boy, Tobey (Kevin Zegers), before she will sign her surgical permission form.
When the prim and proper Bree arrives in New York from L.A., she is horrified to find Tobey in jail and to learn that he is a hustler and a drug addict. He is planning to hitchhike there to get a job as a porn actor, so Bree buys an old station wagon and drives with him across the country to their mutual destination. Along the way, they encounter a quirky bunch of strangers, including a pack of tranny women partying together in the suburbs, an opportunistic hippie hitchhiker, and a suave older Native American cowboy (Graham Greene). They also meet up with dysfunctional family members from both of their pasts, including Bree's intolerant mother who doesn't understand why "Stanley" would want to be this way.
There is a very fine line that films about "minority" groups must walk to succeed and few are able to. If they really prioritize positive representation and respectful portrayals, they become stiff and dull. If they go for maximum entertainment value and broad appeal, they trample and offend the groups they portray (and their allies). To me, Transamerica—like Bound or All About My Mother—is a rare example of a movie about a "minority" group with mainstream appeal that is both highly entertaining and highly respectful. It evokes both the warm-hearted humor and the sympathetic pathos of a finicky woman with a penis having to pee on the side of the road and it also preserves the fragile dignity that Bree has learned to claim for herself.
This impressive balancing act is almost submerged by the film's aggressive publicity campaign that attempts to sell viewers on Huffman's performance alone. The incredibly reductive packaging of the DVD even features one of those fancy shifting pictures that you can turn one way to see Huffman looking like a glamorous movie star and then turn another way to see her looking "bad" as the much dowdier Bree.
Luckily, Huffman's transformation is only one of many compelling transformations in the film itself and the fact that we are able to focus on the others rather than hers alone is a testament to her acting. The evolution of her relationship with Tobey is the biggest transformation here, and Huffman and Zegers build their chemistry and quirky interactions well. Some of the most charming moments of the film come from their strange attempts to impress each other, particularly in reference to the mistaken-identity comedy that arises from Bree's attempts to hide the fact that she is Tobey's father. She pretends to be a religious do-gooder, affiliated with "the Church of the Potential Father." So she continually fakes saying grace at meals to continue her charade and Tobey does as well to get into his spiritual patron's good graces.
One of the nicest aspects of Transamerica is its mixture of a well-worn Hollywood genre—the road movie—with plot developments and endings that are just a little off the industry's beaten path. As an indie screenwriter, Tucker resists easy resolutions at every turn, instead offering the half-victories and small steps that characterize life much more fully than most Hollywood movies would have us believe. Somehow his resolutions are just a lot more fun than most independent films, too.
Transamerica looks and sounds just fine on this disc, especially considering its small budget. Tucker says he shot the film on super 16mm to save money and because he enjoys its lower color saturation. Apart from a little grain here and there, the image is quite nice. The sound is also up to snuff; the dialogue is clear and the lively music rings out beautifully against wide shots of the open road.
The DVD release of Transamerica is nicely filled with substantive extras. We get two long interviews with director Duncan Tucker and Felicity Huffman, and then with Tucker and Kevin Zegers. For the most part, Huffman appears to have been very dedicated to doing the part right, which she did. She talks about her research with transsexual women and how she did exercises every morning to get her voice to sound as low as Bree's should have sounded. Tucker gives a good commentary, mixing stories about shooting and casting with interesting explanations of his stylistic decisions. The most irritating aspect of the special features is Tucker's apparent determination to emphasize how bad Huffman looked as Bree, framing her as the beautiful-woman-playing-ugly type that has garnered so much Oscar attention in recent years. He also lapses into studio pitch mode many times, reciting what must be well-rehearsed lines about how the movie is "universal; it's not about transsexuality. It's about growing up, it's about finding yourself." I can understand that a director needs to sell a quirky script like this as having broad appeal when searching for funding and distributors. Still, now that its on DVD and he's talking to people who already own it or have rented it, why not drop the "it's universal" cliché and acknowledge that it is actually a very specific story about an underrepresented group of people that also resonates with general experiences everyone has?
But the best features are all about Dolly! The legendary Ms. Parton wrote and performed the Oscar-nominated "Travelin' Through" in record time after seeing a rough cut of the film and really connecting with it. As Tucker affirms, having a big name like Dolly Parton participating in the project gave Transamerica a real publicity boost and also speaks to the unusual pairing of trans identity and mild Christianity that the film and song execute effortlessly. The disc includes a very basic music video for the song and a featurette detailing Parton's involvement with the film.
Huffman captures the spirit of the film best in one of the special features: "The movie is uplifting. And it's not uplifting in the way of 'downtrodden person makes it in the end.' It's uplifting because it's funny and it's joyous and it's truthful."
Guilty of attempted thematic misdirection—Judge Jennifer Malkowski advises viewers to look past the shiny gorgeous-woman-plays-ugly-man-who-wants-to-be-a-woman packaging and discover the offbeat, respectful, and funny film underneath—but the movie acquits itself well.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Dolly Parton Music Video Travelin' Through
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