Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Movie – Transamerica (2005)

The title “Transamerica” has multiple meanings.  The literal meaning is accurate in that it is a road movie where two people drive across the country, learning about each other as they go.  It’s also a play on words because one of those people is a pre-op transsexual and the other doesn’t know that.  Nor does he know that this woman he is with in this comedy/drama is actually his biological father.  I’ll explain.

Bree Osbourne (Felicity Huffman) is a male to female transsexual.  She has had several surgeries leading up to this point and she has finally been approved for the final one – the sexual reassignment surgery.  It’s not like you can just call up a hospital and make an appointment for something like this.  People are required to undergo lots of counseling, and live as the other gender for at least a year.  At the end of that time it is still up to the therapist to make the final call if this person is mentally ready to go ahead with the surgery.

Bree makes her living in California as a telemarketer.  She does this not just for the money, but also to practice speaking in a voice that sounds not so deep, but at the same time, not artificially high.  One day she gets a call.  It’s from a 17 year old boy in jail in New York.  He is looking for a man named Stanley Schupak.  He is Stanley’s son and he needs Stanley’s help to bail him out of jail because his mother has committed suicide and he is estranged from his step-father.  Stanley Schupak is Bree’s original name.

At first she tries to pretend the call never happened, mostly because she never even knew she had a son and she’s not sure if she believes him.  She does feel she needs to mention it to her therapist (Elizabeth Pena), though, and this changes things.  The therapist says that until Bree resolves this issue and meets the son she never knew she had, which is about as big a reminder there can be that Bree started out as a man, then Bree will not be mentally prepared for the surgery.

Bree flies cross country and bails her son Toby (Kevin Zegers) out of jail.  Toby mistakes her for a Christian social worker, and in her fear of confronting the truth, Bree doesn’t correct him.  She tells him she is from the Church of the Potential Father.  She has rented a car and she tells him she will drive him back to California.  In reality she is planning to leave him with his step-father.

Bree is disappointed to find that Toby is a small time thief, possibly using drugs, and is definitely a male hustler.  He tells her his goal now is to become a porn star when he gets to California – just what every parent wants to hear.  During the drive her paternal/maternal instincts start to kick in.  Since trying to get Toby to “reform” falls right into line with who he thinks she is, she tries quite a bit to get through to him.  As you might expect, the meeting with his step-father is a disaster and this causes her to lose the trust she was building up with Toby.  And this is all without her finding the courage to tell him who she really is yet.

This is a drama with some light comedy in it, so there are some misadventures on the road trip.  These include Bree stopping at a transsexual support group meeting (try explaining that one), having the car stolen, trying to take bathroom breaks on the side of the road without Toby noticing anything he’s not expecting, having Toby try to hustle her by hitting on her, meeting some real characters (among them Graham Greene), and Bree’s ultimate nightmare: having to reconnect with her estranged parents (Fionnula Flanagan and Bert Young) to ask them for help.

I mentioned in the parent post for this category that Linda Hunt was the only actor/actress who had won an Oscar for playing the other gender and I said I felt there should have been a second one.  That second person is Felicity Huffman for this film.  She was nominated for Best Actress, but she lost to Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line.

Huffman does a fantastic job in this film.  She is playing a man who is trying to pass as a woman.  It might sound easy since she is a woman, but the point is that she has to not be that good at it.  Some people can tell there’s something up with Bree and some cannot.  She has to speak in a voice that is lower in register, but simultaneously sounds like someone trying to speak in a higher register, and sometimes not doing it so well.  This voice requires careful modulation, so this impacts the rest of the performance like how quickly to respond, how anger is presented, how sadness looks, etc.  There is also the walk and movements to consider.  Male to female transsexuals sometimes overdue the mannerisms because they are trying so hard to look like a woman that it ends up looking a little unnatural.  Huffman has all of these things down cold.  Now throw into this mix the fact that she is playing both drama and comedy, both parent and child.

I honestly think Huffman got caught in some of the Oscar politics.  Witherspoon’s film Walk the Line was well-liked and people really wanted to reward Joaquin Phoenix for his performance as Johnny Cash, but no one was going to beat Philip Seymour Hoffman for also playing a real person – Truman Capote.  This left voters still wanting to reward Walk the Line, and there was Witherspoon.  She did a good job in that film, and in fact should have received recognition for some of her performances prior to this, especially Election.  Then when they looked at Witherspoon vs. Huffman, they saw someone who had been making movies for years vs. a woman who was primarily known as a TV actress.  I think all of this tipped the scale to Witherspoon to get the most votes for the Best Actress Oscar.

As you can tell, this isn’t your ordinary, run of the mill story.  Writer/director Duncan Tucker came up with the idea for it after being shocked to find out that the actress he had been platonically sharing a house with for four months had been born male.

If the whole concept of gender change upsets you then you should probably avoid this movie.  On the other end of the spectrum, if you feel it should be treated with the utmost respect and that it is not a fit subject for some occasional humor, then you should also probably avoid this film.  For everyone else, if this sounds interesting, and especially if you want to see Huffman’s performance, then I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. My daughter once watched and reviewed this movie, and I thought it sounded good. And I am really impressed by what you said about Huffman's performance. Great review!

    1. Thanks. Are you and your daughter a reviewing team? I know there are mutiple posters for your site. And if that's the same daughter that's in your profile pic then that's one precocious child you have there.

  2. Good review Chip. I didn't love this movie, but definitely appreciated what Huffman did with her performance and how she was totally able to break-out from that Desperate Housewives mold. Shame the gal hasn't done anything for movies worth mentioning.

    1. I know. It was like once she was on Desperate Housewives either she didn't get the offers, or she wanted some time to relax between seasons, instead of trying to cram in some movies.

  3. I remember hearing about Felicity Huffman's performance in this film. I heard she was great.

    1. I feel she really did do a great job. The movie may not be your cup of tea, but it might be worth your time if you want to see her performance.