Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
|In a mere one week, Sabrina "Bree" Osbourne will be complete.
Bree is a socially conservative, immensely thoughtful person who lives a quiet life as a professional telemarketer and waitress in a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles. "Bree" is a mere one week away from completing her transformation into who she really is by having sexual reassignment surgery...a process that will take her from Stanley, the identity into which she was born, to Bree, the person who she truly believes herself to be.
"TransAmerica" is the first film acquired by the Weinstein Co., the company started by the Weinstein Brothers following their departure from Miramax. A low-budget film written and directed by Duncan Tucker, "TransAmerica" was produced on a $1 million budget and is, quite clearly, a labor of love for Tucker.
In the lead role of Bree, Felicity Huffman is nothing short of magnificent in portraying a man in the process of becoming this woman she believes herself to be.
The film begins, first, with a glimpse of Bree's mandatory psychological evaluation prior to her sexual reassignment surgery, one of the final steps in her bid to get the required signatures allowing the final operation. A few moments later, in the office of her therapist (compassionately portrayed by Elizabeth Pena in a performance reminiscent of her "The Waterdance" role), Bree shares rather glibly that she (as Stanley), the night before, had received a call from the New York Police Department reporting that an unknown son was incarcerated. Bree, who had previously professed to being a virgin, sheepishly admits to her therapist "There WAS this one girl in college...but the whole thing was so tragically lesbian I didn't think it counted."
Apparently, it did.
Pena, seemingly bothered by Bree's deception, mandates that she will not sign the final paperwork until Bree has resolved this unexpected development and dealt with the emotions and circumstances surrounding it.
Thus, "TransAmerica" moves from social commentary to mismatched buddy road film.
Bree travels to New York to bail out 17-year-old Toby (Kevin Zegers), an attractive but already life-weary young man, for the sum total of $1. She offers him $100 and intends to be on his way, however, plans change when Toby, who believes Bree to be a Christian do-gooder, announces he plans to go to Los Angeles to become a film star...porn films, of course.
The journey home becomes, at times, your stereotypical road movie, however, it's intertwined with scenes of stark humanity, painful truths and darkly comic tenderness.
"TransAmerica" works because it takes the alternative route. Tucker, wisely, doesn't focus the film on Sabrina's journey towards becoming a woman. Nope, that would have been the easy route. Instead, Tucker focuses the film on the journey that these two seemingly mismatched individuals take in becoming more richly human and comfortable in their own skin.
As we journey with these people, we become acutely aware of the many ways in which they have had to lie about who they are, hide how they feel, compromise and, ultimately, the tragic ways in which they have been betrayed and hurt by the ones who should have loved and protected them.
Bree, who could actually pass as a conservative Christian female, first tries to persuade Toby to return to his hometown in Southern Kentucky. She learns that his mother has died, that he doesn't get along with his stepfather AND he steadfastly refuses to go. An attempt to force the issue results in both painful and revealing fashion for both Toby and Bree.
There are, of course, multiple other stops along the way. Each one comes with its own lessons, both tragic and humorous.
There's the overnight stay with a friend of Bree, who rather ironically, happens to be holding a support meeting for transsexuals. Bree, still attempting to not reveal she is, in fact, Toby's father, apologizes for these people while Toby thinks they seem nice.
There's both a stereotypical "bad guy" hitchhiker, who rips the two off during a particularly ugly encounter, and the rescuing Native American Calvin TwoGoat (Graham Greene), who enters the scene just as Toby has started to catch on that something might be amiss when he accidentally observes Bree during a roadside restroom break and, well, the penis is rather hard to miss!
Finally, and most dramatically, is the return to Bree's own home with a mother (Fionnula Flanagan) who, while attempting to find the right words manages to say "We love you...We just don't respect you."
In reality, it would have been easy for Tucker to turn this scene into a whirlwind of stereotypes and caricatures. With Flanagan's over-the-top performance, the character was ripe for the treatment. Yet, just when one starts to think it's all going to spiral out of control, the film's most powerful and heartbreaking scene unfolds and the deep, rich humanity of each character is revealed in all their flawed glory. Likewise, Burt Young is marvelous as Bree's father as is Carrie Preston as her recovering alcoholic sister.
It is, precisely, this flawed glory that makes "TransAmerica" such a powerful, deeply moving film. So often, when filmmakers are creating works based upon such profound and controversial material, they pointedly draw conclusions to make their point. In "TransAmerica," Duncan Tucker challenges the audience to draw their own conclusions. The end result is that we are left with characters who are both tragically flawed and yet wondrously inviting.
As we journey with Toby and Bree, we both laugh and cry at the similarities in life decisions, personalities, coping skills and, yet, even hopefulness. Both lie and deceive, yet both are tragically beautiful in the way they quietly admire and protect each other.
Zegers offers a marvelously felt performance as the young Toby, a performance that is similar in tone to this year's performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Mysterious Skin."
"TransAmerica" is a challenging film both for its subject matter and its brutal honesty and, at times, graphic imagery. The film contains both male and female full-frontal nudity and numerous references to hustling, sexuality, child abuse and drugs. Thus, it is not a film that should be viewed by young children. While it occasionally does dissolve into predictability, and the plot itself does have more than one noticeable hole contained with in it, the film's multi-layered character development and genuine dialogue combine to make the plot challenges largely irrelevant.
"TransAmerica", in fact, transcends the stereotypical treatment of transgendered individuals largely due to the empathic and sincere performance of Felicity Huffman, who simply must be considered a frontrunner for this year's Best Actress Oscar. By the end of "TransAmerica," one can't help but care about the futures of both Bree and Toby.
The ending of "TransAmerica" is one of cinema's best in the past year, a quiet ending that offers nothing concrete in the way of resolution but, instead, a gentle glimpse of hope followed by an almost irreverent wink of acknowledgment to the challenges that continue to lie ahead.
|© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic