Somehow Charles and I had previously missed the 2005 film Transamerica even though it’s a decade old and had achieved an enormous reputation as a major step forward in the depiction of Transgender people on screen and the actor playing the Transgender lead, Felicity Huffman, won an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal. The plot deals with Bree Osbourne (Felicity Huffman), née Stanley Chupak, who as the movie opens is living in Los Angeles, practicing for her transition (at the start she’s watching a video about how to adopt and maintain an appropriately female vocal register when she speaks, and attempting to duplicate the lip movements of the person making the video) and ready for her final gender reassignment surgery in a week. The humiliation she has to go through in pleading for permission to have the operation with her doctors, Dr. Spikowsky (Danny Burstein) and psychotherapist Margaret (Elizabeth Peña, who died tragically young — age 55 — in October 2014, a year that had more than its share of celebrity tragedies), is something I’ve heard all too much about in interviewing and interacting with real Transgender people. Just a week before she’s scheduled for her operation she receives a phone call for Stanley stating that (s)he has a son in jail in New York City for possession of a controlled substance and stealing a frog. (Writer-director Duncan Tucker doesn’t clarify whether this is a sculpture of a frog or a living one.)
The son — product of an early relationship she had in college with a woman who quickly broke up with her (“Lesbian drama,” Bree calls it) — is Toby (Kevin Zegers), a hard-bitten amoral Gay hustler (though Tucker keeps it powerfully ambiguous whether he’s really Gay, Bi or just a straight kid doing “Gay for pay” — he also describes Toby as having been brought out by his stepfather, who regularly molested him; as with Brokeback Mountain this film presents a much more complex and less clear-cut vision of how people develop and discover their sexual orientations than most of the orthodox “we’re born that way” propaganda of Queer activists and lobbyists) torn between childhood and adulthood, between drugs and the Curious George doll he had at home. Bree tells Toby she’s bailed him out because she’s from a Christian church and he’s become her charity case, and the two of them set out across country in a beat-up car bought from one of Toby’s similarly economically marginal friends. Bree insists on driving Toby to the Kentucky town where he was raised by a stepfather who kept him — and kept molesting him — after his mom committed suicide. They stay in Austin, Texas at the home of a Transgender woman who runs a support group for the gender-dysphoric and who’s considerably more open about it than Bree, who hasn’t told Toby that she’s really a guy (something he learns later on when he sees “her” peeing by the side of the road and realizes she has a penis) and still less that she’s actually his biological father. The two pick up a hitchhiker (Grant Monohon, who seems more than a little sexually ambiguous himself) in the Southwest, only the hitchhiker steals their car — costing them not only their transportation but also Bree’s hormone pills, without which her body will inevitably revert to its male internal chemistry.
They’re rescued by the movies’ typical philosophical Native American, Calvin (played by Graham Greene, who’s made a specialty out of this sort of role), who finds himself being attracted to Bree. He drives her as far as the home of her parents, Murray (Burt Young) and Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan) and her syster Sydney (Carrie Preston) — why they gave Bree’s sister such a masculine name when they’re Transphobic remains a mystery — and Bree desperately asks them for a loan of $1,000 to get to L.A. for her operation. She’s told her parents, but not Toby himself, that he’s her biological son, and they agree to put up the money if Toby stays there and they’re allowed to raise him (obviously they’re hoping their grandson will take the place of the “son” they lost when s/he turned out Transgender), but Toby refuses — until Bree finally tells him she’s his father, and he responds by belting her in the eye and fleeing. Eventually, of course, they end up together, she has her operation (there’s a curious shot of Bree fingering her “new” vagina while taking a bath, a moving scene even though it’s somewhat less edgy than intended given that we know what we’re seeing is the vagina nature and the gene pool endowed Felicity Huffman with at conception) and there’s a curious peace between them as Bree returns to her proletarian existence as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant by night and a work-at-home phone solicitor by day. At first I was afraid Transamerica would turn out to be one of those movies I’d find myself respecting more than actually enjoying — but eventually, especially once I suspended disbelief and accepted Felicity Huffman as a Transwoman instead of the cisgender biological female she really is (an imposture she maintained with the aid of a special voice she worked out and didn’t abandon during the shoot, even off-camera, for fear that if she gave up the voice she’d never get it back again; and a prosthetic dick she nicknamed “Andy”), I started really enjoying the movie. It’s true it’s a mix of clichés, the fish-out-of-water and road-trip movies, but writer/director Tucker deserves credit for using those clichés to add freshness and depth to his story.
It also helps that he gets excellent performances from both his leads; Felicity Huffman got the Academy Award and the acclaim for her great (and utterly convincing) performance as a Transwoman, but Kevin Zegers, a young actor (born 1984) with both the gender ambiguity and the riveting intensity of James Dean, also deserved kudos for the subtlety of his performance, the balance he achieved between playing the character’s edginess and superficial hardness and hinting at, and ultimately showing us, the torment and vulnerability inside. Unfortunately, in the decade since this movie he’s worked mostly on television and, at least if the titles on his imdb.com page are any indication, he didn’t get anywhere near the career boost this movie should have given him! I’d love to see more honest Transgender stories on the screen, but the big — and obvious — problem is how do you cast them? I remember recently reading the novel Trans-Sister Radio (about a male-to-female Transgender film professor, the woman who falls in love with her when she’s still a he, and the irony that her husband ends up with him after he’s transitioned) and thinking it would make a marvelous movie, except that the only way I could think of casting it was to hire an actual Transgender actor who was about to transition and filming them on both sides of the surgery (much the way Richard Linklater’s acclaimed Boyhood was filmed over 12 years so the lead actor, Ellar Coltrane, would literally age from five to 17 on screen and the actors playing his parents, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette — who, ironically, has a “Trans-sister” of her own, Alexis — would also age for real instead of requiring makeup or doubles). But I can see why Trans people generally thought Transamerica was a real advance in their depiction on screen, and I loved the movie precisely for making us identify with the characters, making us feel for their sufferings and ache to see them happy and fulfilled, instead of the lab-rat detachment we get from all too many modern-day movies!