Monday, June 05, 2006

Girl, You'll Be a Woman...Soon

About ten years ago I developed a theory that cross-dressers and/or transgendered individuals were ideal fodder for filmed drama, and I backed it up with a long list of movies that proved the idea – everything from Some Like It Hot to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (which may have been the film that inspired the theory). The only movie I could come up with that bucked the trend was Mrs. Doubtfire. In the years since, I haven’t kept score as diligently, mostly due to the fact that movies and TV shows featuring characters that fall under the parameters are far more common than they used to be.

Enter Bree Osbourne (Felicity Huffman), the central character of Transamerica, who reminded me why I came up with the theory in the first place. Just when it seemed as though every variation on the theme had been exhausted, along comes a little movie like this which proves there are still remarkable stories to tell involving these sorts of people.

Bree used to be Stanley and now is on the verge of having the big operation. She’s unlike other filmic transgendered characters in that she doesn’t frequent the club scene, listen to disco, sleep around, take drugs or compete in drag competitions. Her closest friend is her therapist and she works part time at a Mexican restaurant and part time from home as a telemarketer, and her life isn’t much more exciting than that. Until one day she gets a call from a son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), whom she didn’t even know existed.

Through a mildly convoluted series of events, she’s forced to leave L.A. and go to New York to bail him out of jail for prostitution. Not only does she not tell him upfront that she’s his father, but she also fails to tell him that she’s a transsexual. It’s a credit to Huffman’s performance that it doesn’t occur to Toby that something’s a little “off” about her and the viewer doesn’t question it either. (Of course, maybe that’s the genius of casting a woman in the role in the first place.) It's also noteworthy that Toby is presented as the far more troubled of the two - in the "fucked up" department, Bree's pretty normal next to her son.

The pair set off on a road trip back to L.A. The journey is predictable only in that they learn an awful lot about themselves and one another along the way. The movie plays as a drama, but with some peculiar, dark comedic bits peppered throughout. Much of the background music consists of country tunes, which made me think that country artists have come a long way over the years – and there is nary a k.d. lang song to be heard.

Huffman first blew me away a couple years ago in the short-lived Showtime series Out of Order. Compared to Lynette on Desperate Housewives (for which she received an Emmy), her portrayal of Order’s Lorna is sorta like comparing Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane to his wine commercials – he does both like no one else could, and yet it’s still all about the material.

Huffman’s as good as she possibly could be on Housewives, given what she has to work with. Transamerica, on the other hand, is serious acting. I wasn’t sure what to think when the movie began, but by the second or third scene, she sold me. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria – a woman playing a man playing a woman, although the comparison ends there. It was a brave role for her to take; the shape of Huffman’s face is indeed somewhat masculine, and a less humble actress might even have been insulted by the offer of the role. Yet I think of some of the other great character actresses working today, like Laura Linney or Joan Allen, and while they possess the acting chops, I don’t believe they have the physical features it takes to pull off this role.

There’s a lengthy section of the third act that takes place in Phoenix, where Bree’s parents and sister live. It begins as you might expect, but manages to go into areas I didn’t see coming. The first scene with her mother reminded me of the brief scene with Patrick Swayze’s mother in To Wong Foo – and maybe what happens in this movie is what would have happened in that film if his mother hadn’t closed and locked the door upon seeing her son wearing a dress.