Movie review: <i>Transamerica</i>

The bright Pepto pink of pre-operative transexxual Bree’s world, set against a grainy video, is a stark and somewhat unsettling intro to the journey of director Duncan Tucker’s Transamerica. Felicity Huffman’s tremulous gender presentation is amazingly convincing as the timid and conservative Bree, who is traversing the medical world in the final steps before her surgery. Her therapist, Margaret (Elizabeth Pena), is about to hand over all the necessary forms to the surgeon when she finds out that Bree has just been contacted by the NYPD to bail out a son she never knew she had from, a brief (“tragically lesbian”) heterosexual encounter nearly 20 years before. Before Margaret will consent to the procedure Bree must meet her son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), and explore that portion of her past.

When Bree finds Toby he is living as a hustler in New York and Bree figures that it must be her duty, and that it will be enough, to return him to his step-father in Kentucky. Under the false pretense that she is a Christian missionary who is taking him back to Los Angeles with her so that he can pursue a career in the adult film industry, the 2 embark on a cross-country road trip in a dilapidated station wagon.

As each sits, guarded, next to each other over the miles truths emerge throughout the length of both the road and the film. Transamerica is full of silly quips, such as Toby’s queer reading of Lord of the Rings, his misuse of the word degradable when he means degrading, or Brees sister Sydney exclamation that Bree seems the same as always but “…put through a strainer that got rid of all the boy pulp.” At first I the placement and effectiveness of these one-liners felt unsteady. But the juxtaposition of humor with serious themes involving abuse, identity, drugs and survival, make these situations not only more bearable but more real. Both Toby and Bree lead lives that can be difficult, uncomfortable and at times downright dangerous, but they live them with, if not joy, at least occasional moments of smiles and happiness. Tucker manages to paint a portrait of 2 individuals, a family, who are funny and real without being melodramatically tragic. In this almost anti-filmic way, Transamerica feels decidedly un-epic for a movie that deals with such intense subject matter. It is this very concept, however, brings the film closer to the audience, as if this is, indeed, our America.

Transamerica winds down along this same path, with an uneasy happy ending that makes no promises, and yet does not embrace the quintessential death or destruction patterns that have historically plagued movies about transgendered people or complicated families. Transamerica is a refreshing step into the life of a transsexual parent, and out of the trap of contemporary independent cinematic rules.

Transamerica shows tonight at 7p at Cinema 21 as part of the Portland Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

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