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Just travelin' onwards
A film review of TRANSAMERICA by CNash

I swore to myself that I wouldn't give this review a corny title – "More than a Woman", or something equally as trite. Not because it would be completely stereotypical of me as a film critic, but because the issue of transsexualism is not what Transamerica is about. The posters would have you believe that it's the major focus of the film; the only impression I got from the promotional material was "Felicity Huffman plays a transsexual woman," and logic would seem to suggest that this would be the main plotline of the film. Instead, the issue of the protagonist's transsexuality is largely pushed aside after the opening act, and Transamerica then becomes a heartening tale of a bonding between two societal outcasts as they embark on a journey across the United States.

It's nice for once to have a film that is unafraid to have a transsexual main character and not use him/her either as comic relief, or for shock value. Hollywood has had a kind of perverse fascination with the idea of men dressing up as women, going all the way back to Some Like It Hot, and more recently Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire – but these films aren't about transsexuals, they concern transvestites, which on the outside looks like a psychologically similar condition, but at its core is unrelated. Transsexualism has been seriously covered, I believe, only once in mainstream cinema – Neil Jordan's The Crying Game. Along the way, we've had Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which wasn't a serious commentary on transsexualism and should not be compared to Jordan's powerful effort. Transamerica promises to take a more serious look at the realities of both male-to-female transsexualism and sexual reassignment surgery.

The film centres on Bree (Felicity Huffman, of Desperate Housewives fame), a male-to-female pre-op transsexual, who's been living as a woman for some time now, and has almost gotten the right medical clearance to have full sexual reassignment surgery (the inversion of the penis to create a vagina). Understandably, she's incredibly nervous, constantly looking over her shoulder and paranoid about what people might be thinking of her. Bree believes that having her surgery will fix all of her problems, that it's a miracle cure, and she'll never have to deal with ever having been a man again. Real life (and Hollywood) has told us that this is never the case, and true to form, Bree receives a phone call from Toby (Kevin Zegers). Toby is her son from a previous girlfriend of Stanley's (Bree's male name), and Bree never knew that he existed.

With her psychologist refusing to sign off on her surgery until she meets up with him, Bree is forced to go to New York. She finds Toby in a prison cell, and – pretending to be a Christian missionary – bails him out. They then set off on a road trip across America, to get back to Los Angeles in time for Bree's surgery. Along the way, the pair bond in some unexpected – and tragic – ways.

So how can a movie as signposted as this one not be cantered on transsexualism? Well, I won't lie to you – it certainly forms the backdrop to the relationship between Bree and Toby, but isn't the deciding factor. What Toby despises is people lying to him. He does eventually find out about Bree's condition, but that's not what bothers him – Toby has no issues with transsexual people – he respects them for having to go through so much hardship – and he himself is bisexual, so he's used to getting abusive reactions along similar lines. So when he finds out that Bree has been lying to him about her status, never mind her familial connection to him that he is unaware of, all trust and respect for her vanishes. It's an age-old dilemma, and one that transsexual people face regularly: if you tell a potential friend that you're a transsexual, they may react with disgust, but if you don't tell them, they may lose all respect for you as a person of either gender. It's a very tricky situation for anyone to be in, so this problem isn't entirely Bree's fault.

Indeed, Bree has problems of her own. She's forced to act the responsible adult for a wilful, drug-taking teenager; likely the most responsibility she's had since starting to live as a woman. In learning how to be a parent, Bree builds her own confidence up. By mid-journey, she's no longer looking over her shoulder, anxious that she may be "read" as a transsexual. While some events cause her to lapse back into self-doubting paranoia, it's Toby's presence that ultimately snaps her back into reality and makes her see that she's missing out on so much of her life.

After some disastrous events, Bree must turn to her parents – the only people in the area that she knows. She has to confront her non-supportive mother (Venida Evans), her indifferent and unsure father (Burt Young), and her accepting but weirded-out younger sister, Sydney (Carrie Preston). It's a scene familiar to many homosexual and transsexual people – one parent who won't accept you, another who'll love you no matter what you do, and younger siblings caught in the middle. Bree's mother is the epitome of domineering; a woman who can't understand why Bree feels the way she does, and can't bring herself to respect her. When she meets Toby, she's ecstatic – to her, Toby is the chance to raise a normal son, a chance that she feels Bree took away from her when she left home. Bree's sister Sydney is a hoot – she captures that "bratty yet loveable sibling" personality perfectly, knows exactly what her mother is like, and – despite feeling a sense of loss over her "big brother"'s transformation – is always there to lend a sympathetic ear. All three family members are acted well, and with a decent amount of realism.

Maybe it's because of Bree's false identity as a Christian missionary, or because the states that Bree and Toby travel through are regarded as "Bible belt", but the music used in Transamerica alternates between Christian and Country tracks (often both); given the visuals of driving through the American countryside, it does a good job of setting the scene. The standout piece of music is the Oscar-nominated Travelin' Thru, sung by Dolly Parton over the end credits, which I've taken a liking to; it captures the spirit of the movie.

As I mentioned above, there are some wonderful shots of Bree and Toby driving down long American interstate roads, where they're the only car on the road and there's nothing else to look at but the fields in the distance. In one scene, the pair go to a beautiful lake, surrounded by cliffs; Toby has fun in the water, while Bree sits atop a ledge, relaxing and looking serenely out over the water. Full marks to the director and cinematographer; after all, a roadtrip movie wouldn't be the same without scenery like this.

Transamerica essential message is "be true to yourself." Lying to yourself, never mind lying to others, is shown as self-destructive and causing heartache. The film tells us to enjoy whatever life brings us, no matter how hopeless the situation may seem, and to maintain a positive outlook. It may seem like a trite and overused message, one that Hollywood seems to be fond of putting into many a film – all I have to say is, don't knock it till you've tried it.


USA 2005
103 mins
Duncan Tucker
Rene Bastian
Sebastian Dungan
Linda Moran
Duncan Tucker
Stephen Kazmierski
Pam Wise
David Mansfield
production design
Mark White
Felicity Huffman
Kevin Zegers
Fionnula Flanagan
Elizabeth Peña
Graham Greene
Burt Young
Carrie Preston
review posted
6 April 2006