In a brave performance bound to win accolades, "Desperate Housewives" star Felicity Huffman (2004's "Christmas with the Kranks
") warmly and believably plays Bree, a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual just days away from her surgery. It would have been an obvious choice for this role in "Transamerica" to go to a male actor, but also the wrong one. After all, Bree sees herself completely as a woman, her years as Stanley but a detour to her true identity, which makes it perfectly fitting that a woman tackle the part. Huffman pretty much makes the movie, conveying the respective pain and courage of a person forced to live in a body she knew wasn't meant for her, and ultimately jumping at the chance to change her life for the better.
With only a week until her sex change operation is to take place, Bree (Felicity Huffman) receives an unanticipated phone call from 17-year-old Toby (Kevin Zegers), a New York City hustler who needs someone to post his bail and has no one to turn to but his estranged father. Bree is Toby's fatheras Stanley, he once had sex with a girl in college, an experience Bree tells therapist Margaret (Elizabeth Pena) was "tragically lesbian"but doesn't know how to face him for the first time with the truth. Posing instead as a Christian missionary working for Stanley, Bree gets Toby out of jail and promptly allows him to tag along with her back home to Los Angeles, where he hopes to become a porn actor. With nothing but the open road in front of them, their relationship is an initially rocky one that gradually builds with respect, affection and love. It is only a matter of time, however, before the monumental secret Bree has chosen to keep from Toby is discovered.
The major feature debut of writer-director Duncan Tucker, "Transamerica" is wise to resist the temptation of turning itself into an education lesson on tolerance and the struggles of transgendered people. There are elements of these things, but they do not define the film's soul and are handled with a light touch that never feels preachy. In fact, take away Stanley/Bree's sexual identity and what we have is an admittedly conventional road movie between a fatheror is that mother?and son, the latter of whom is being kept in the dark about his familial ties to her. Writer-director Tucker typically goes for subtlety over broad comedy, but doesn't deny the proceedings some tart one-liners. Alas, what he cannot avoid is the sense that this kind of story has been told too many times before, its only claim to individuality being the precarious conflict Bree faces in deciding whether or not to fess up to her son about who she is.
Felicity Huffman is exquisite as Bree, rising to the presumably near-impossible task of making the viewer truly believe that she is a man who yearns to be a woman. Her eye-popping work, filled with plausible levels of strength, fear and regret as she faces the world head-on even as she cannot open herself up to her son, would be a shoo-in for Oscar notice if not that the film around her is a relatively minor, albeit appealing, work. The road Bree and Toby travel, both literally and figuratively, is worn out, as they encounter some colorful characters along the way, bond with each other, and finally manage to find common ground.
The anticlimactic ending isn't quite as predictable, but might have been better if this staple of the genre had also remained intact. Indeed, things are left a little too open-ended for comfort, with the audience asked to draw their own conclusions and the wayward character of Toby, played with an uncompromising forthrightness by Kevin Zegers (2004's "Dawn of the Dead
"), seemingly not having learned much about the wide possibilities that his future could hold. It also is stretching things that Toby would spend a week with Bree and not put two-and-two together that his father has been standing in front of him all along.
Amid the less inspired elements, "Transamerica" offers moments of wit and insight, especially during a high-strung visit between Bree and her parents (Fionnula Flanagan, Burt Young) and younger recovering addict sister (Carrie Preston). Despite having a difficult time coming to terms with Stanley's metamorphosis into Bree, there is an unconditional love between them that rings trueeven when at each other's throats. Also interesting is the way the parents suddenly cling to Toby after discovering he is their grandson, but are unable to tell him per Bree's request. Through it all, Bree shines like a beacon of light. She stands as a role model without trying, if only for the determination and assuredness that drives her toward what she knows in her heart is her destined fate. "Transamerica" won't be winning any awards for originality or visionary achievement, but in its own small, sweet way, the filmand Felicity Huffmanwin you over and make you deeply sympathize with the obstacles Bree must face in the name of happiness.