February 23, 2006

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FILM: Transamerica (R)
by Amy Diaz

Felicity Huffman kicks Dustin Hoffman’s drag-wearing behind with her portrayal of a man desperately trying to pass as a very prim woman in Transamerica, which, despite its sensational-sounding main character, is actually a rather sweet movie.

Sweet because Bree (Huffman), who used to be Stanley, tries with almost heartbreaking intensity to appear feminine. She works to soften and raise her deep voice and to feminize her walk. Her pastels-filled apartment seems like the waiting room in a downmarket salon and her wardrobe is a girly yet modest look, bargain basement Isaac Mizrahi meets church social. Which turns out to be a lucky clothing choice when Bree finds herself posing as a missionary. Only days away from the operation that will officially rid her of the physical vestiges of Stanley, Bree gets a call from the son she didn’t know she fathered. Seems Junior — Toby (Kevin Zegers) — is something of a troublemaker and is a regular in the New York correctional system for charges related to prostitution and drugs. At the urging of her therapist, Bree shows up and bails him out, allowing him to assume that she’s a Christian missionary. She offers to drive him to Los Angeles, hoping to fulfill enough of her fatherly duties to get her therapist to give the final OK needed by the surgeon who will perform the sex change.

The two form an extremely tentative friendship. Bree is rather horrified to learn more about Toby’s life — an unpleasant history of abuse, neglect and a dead mother — and Toby is horrified when he catches a glimpse of Bree peeing while standing upright on the side of the road. Though a series of mishaps, they end up in need of money and are forced to call Bree’s parents, who all but despise their son for what Bree’s mom believes are his lifestyle choices.

Transamerica is, as the name suggests, a road movie and, also as the name suggests, a movie about identity. Both Bree and Toby are trying to hold a pose not completely natural to them. Toby’s is one of toughness and independence — a pose opposite to this young boy’s obvious desire to have someone love him without ulterior motives. While Bree clearly feels herself to be a woman, she sees herself as fitting into society only as a very feminine woman — something that her height and male characteristics make difficult to her. She also wants to be loved for herself, but it is a self that is somewhat of her own invention and therefore one of which she is not altogether certain.

The story is engaging and funny more than you might expect but, as the awards and nominations suggest, it is truly Huffman’s performance that makes the film stand out. She builds Bree from inside out, focusing on the nuances that — more than even dress or sex organs — make a man male and a woman female. A scene where a child at a diner asks her if she is a man or a woman — a question that causes Bree to briefly crumble — is played out with Huffman brilliantly mixing fear and pain and blind panic. She takes a character that could have easily been made into a cartoon of a saint or freak and makes her a human, full of longing and desperation. A-

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