The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Transamerica

Originally posted 2/7/06
Full review behind the jump


: Duncan Tucker
: Duncan Tucker
: Rene Bastian, Sebastian Dungan, Linda Moran
: Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers, Fionnula Flanagan, Elizabeth Peña, Graham Greene, Burt Young, Carrie Preston

It’s truly remarkable how the world of independent film has evolved in the past 15 years. As subject matter has widened, so has the polish and structural awareness of the filmmaking. Where it was once the place for stylistic daring or non-traditional storytelling, many “independents” are now simply inexpensive variants of the same Hollywood formulas. And for subject matter, what once was fringe is now moving into the mainstream, allowing more unusual fare to take prominence within the fringe. So you can have a handsomely-produced homosexual love story like
Brokeback Mountain starring A-List talent and filmed by an A-List director, while back in the churning fringe we now have a capable and engaging, often funny (but gently so) movie, Transamerica, about a transgendered person.

A transgender is not homosexual – they have a preference for the opposite gender to themselves. It’s their definition of what gender their “self” is which is at odds with the body they were born into. And while this is a challenging concept to some audiences, it is delivered in a vehicle that, without that added twist, would not leave a lasting impression. The bonding road trip – where two people bridge the wide chasm between them while crossing through postcard landscapes and meeting an eccentric cross-section of Americans in a beat-up car – is hallowed, creaky even. And writer/director Duncan Tucker’s script is a square and even sometimes awkward assembly of convenient conflicts and sketch-simple characters. Its greatest asset – what makes it worth recommending in spite of all – is the central character of Bree Osborne, as realized by the Oscar-nominated Felicity Huffman.

Bree came into this world with the name of Stanley, but rejected this label as she rejected her own organs. Deep inside herself she knows, simply knows, that she is a woman. And with the painful procedures she’s already undergone – hormone treatments and hair removal and facial surgeries and on and on – she’s demonstrated more commitment to this knowledge than anything else in her life: she spent ten years in college without earning a degree and lives in a humble Los Angeles bungalow while juggling waitressing and telemarketing.

She is prim, polite, even sort of dull in her insistent fussiness. Her voice is a level alto, breathy because it would be low if she weren’t exerting an effort. Her body language is distinctly feminine, not pronounced as such (she has no desire to stand out, she lives as a “stealth”, faking her gender until the surgical transformation can be completed); but, if you were looking closer, you’d see a heightened awareness and effort, because it’s man’s body that would walk like a man’s without the effort. Consider the dexterity required of Huffman, who must act her own sex as if coming to it with observation but no direct knowledge, and you see why she deserves not only to be considered for this year’s Best Actress Academy Award, but to win it.

She is one week from the decisive surgical procedure which, euphemistically speaking, will turn her “outie” into an “innie” – at which point she will be, even by the medical definition, 100-percent woman. Her intense anticipation of this day is interrupted by one fateful phone call from a police station in New York.

She has a son. Or rather, “he”, while still living as Stanley, impregnated a woman in college, never found out about it, and the son is now seventeen and hustling on the streets of the Big Apple. The mother is dead, so the police called the father, who really doesn’t want to be thought of in that way. She wants nothing to do with the boy, who sounds like trouble, but her therapist (Elizabeth Peña), whose signature is required for the operation to go forward, now threatens to withhold that signature if Bree doesn’t face this drastic upheaval in her life.

Okay, it feels arbitrary, but it gets us where we’re going, as Bree travels to New York, bails out the handsome but surly young Toby (Kevin Zegers), and, not ready to explain his novel parentage, poses as a social aid worker from a Church. He’s an unrepentant drug user and yearns to move to Los Angeles to break into the gay porn industry. Which makes them like the Odd Couple; but with cocaine, illicit truck stop sex and a battered old station wagon packed full of hidden truths.

Bree, per the demands of her role in the script, seeks every opportunity to discharge this rude kid, but is each time, per the requirements of the story’s forward progress, unable to. And somehow they stay stuck together through their coast-to-coast odyssey, and against their will they learn about each other and come to depend on each other.

Without Bree in charge, and the way her circumstance manages to create unique needs and misunderstandings, this drive would hardly be worth the taking. Tucker succumbs readily, eagerly even, to soap opera tactics – characters drawn to the broadest of extremes, and in dialogue, hurling skeletons out of theirs and each others’ closets with tactless and unbelievable abandon. Outside of Bree’s determination to complete her evolution into womanhood nothing feels organic or lived through, just slapped together from other movies. We meet Bree’s family, and it’s only the deftness of actress Fionnula Flanagan that keeps the mother she portrays from being an unwatchable horrorshow of scorn and judgment. Watch the scene where she processes one pulverizing shock after another, then finds one fact in the whole perverse situation that appeals to her and seizes on it – this is an actress doing her level best to flesh out a narrow role.

But maybe this is necessary disguise for the movie to reach a wider audience – the “stealth” of a familiar genre smoothing the way to a greater understanding of a little-discussed subset of our population. If it’s not too backhanded of me I can compliment Tucker on his familiarity with the basic levers and gears of Hollywood feel-good. It’s the richness of Bree, though, so distinct, so fully in the flesh, that shows the rest of Transamerica to such disadvantage – I want the quirky and colorful surroundings worthy of her and her journey.


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