From the moment we first see Bree Osborne (Felicity Huffman, TV's "Desperate Housewives"), a pre-op Transgender patient, it is difficult to recognize the well-known actress. Occasionally, an actor will so completely take on the role they are playing it becomes difficult to spot them, to remember we are not watching an actor play a role. Often when this happens, the actor has gone on to win an Academy Award. Huffman does this with Bree Osborne in "Transamerica". If she doesn't win the Oscar, she will be robbed.
Bree has slowly and deliberately completed all of the necessary requirements to receive the surgery she so desperately wants. The surgery which will finally remove all traces of her former self, of Stanley, and help her finally live the life she has always dreamed of. Her psychiatrist (Elizabeth Pena) has guided her through the process, helping her, preparing her, making sure she is ready for the final step. And both are very happy when Bree has reached the final step. But then she receives a call from New York informing her that Stanley's son is in jail. She talks to her psychiatrist about this and learns she must travel to New York and help the son she never knew she had, her former self had, before she can have the surgery. Heartbroken, she realizes this is just the latest hurdle on the long journey. Upon her arrival in New York, she bails Toby (Kevin Zegers) out and realizes he is living in squalor, as a prostitute. She poses as a missionary from a church and agrees to give him a ride to Los Angeles. Along the way, they learn a lot about each other, making them stronger, better people.
"Transamerica" is a good film featuring a great performance by Huffman. The film's roots and production values are very evident, giving the finished product a grainy, low-budget look, ultimately detracting from the film. But only slightly.
Felicity Huffman's transformation is amazing. Much like Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie", the two actors successfully become their characters in both appearance and manner. Huffman does a better job, simply because she is more successful in satisfying both the appearance and mannerisms of her character. In "Tootsie", we bought into Hoffman's portrayal of Dorothy Michaels, because it was funny and it fit. No one in their right mind would ever believe she is a real woman. But because the acting was so good, and the film was so funny, we went along for the ride. In "Transamerica", Huffman looks remarkably similar to Hoffman in the comedy, but the key difference is that Bree is a pre-op transsexual and the film is more dramatic. She isn't a woman. Yet. We can believe her very mannish appearance because of the stage of her transformation.
Huffman does a remarkable job of becoming a very masculine looking woman, a masculine looking woman who wants to appear feminine. Huffman is a great actress and very good looking, but she isn't a beauty, in the traditional Hollywood sense. If she were, the role would have been difficult to pull off. The role embraces Huffman's unique looks, allowing her to become all the more convincing as she plays the role.
Huffman also captures the right amount of exaggerated femininity for the role. As Bree is trying to become a woman, many aspects of her character are learned through observation and practice. Every piece of clothing Bree wears is very feminine, too feminine, and tightly coordinated with every other piece. The result? She looks like a Mary Kay Salesman, wearing pink skirts and matching coats with bright scarves around her neck. As Bree is, essentially, playing a part, she occasionally slips and "let's down her guard". The few times this happens, we see further skill of Huffman's ability and realize Bree has been working on the process for a long time. Her mannerisms are just right, making her appear like a man trying to be a woman, always moving her hands, trying to be delicate, demure and very feminine. Because Bree tries so hard, she gives herself away but we get a sense that her surgery will make everything right again, when she can acclimate, everything will fall into place.
If the performance were simply about becoming the character, it would be good, but because Bree lives a believable life, the performance becomes great. During the first act, we witness Bree's life and learn of how she has adapted her life. Living in a small cottage in a largely Latino neighborhood, she waits for the bus with other workers. Standing next to a man, Bree realizes she is too tall and bends her knees a little, until she is lower than him. We watch Bree at her job as a bus boy, with her psychiatrist, in her neighborhood. But something we don't really realize, until later in the film, is how isolated her life is. No significant other, no friends, no family. This is part of the reason her psychiatrist postpones her surgery until she deals with the discovery of her son. The psychiatrist won't let her blow off his problems, or postpone meeting him until after the surgery. It is painful for Bree, but she does it, always hoping to successfully navigate the new hurdle in time for her to keep her scheduled surgery.
Upon her arrival in New York, she meets Toby (Zegers), and bails him out. When she sees his living conditions, that he is living in squalor, and working as a prostitute, she can't simply leave him there. She has to help. Initially, she decides to reunite him with his step-dad, something he doesn't seem very eager for.
Kevin Zegers is very good. Toby is a fairly typical character; into drugs, aimless, trying to survive, he sells his body for money. At first, the character doesn't seem like it will offer anything new, and for a long time, this appears to be the case. But then we realize he is just as isolated as Bree. Throughout the film, we watch him form a friendship, a bond, with his new found friend.
"Transamerica" ultimately becomes a road picture and this is not my favorite type of film. Road pictures just seem like easy, manipulative ways to get two or three characters to learn about each other, for the benefit of the audience. But in the case of "Transamerica", the two characters are so believable, and so interesting, that I was willing to overlook the inevitable scene in which they have to campout, or visit a back roads diner, or a small gas station. The road trip aspect of the film is very predictable and also very low-budget. The filmmakers obviously don't have to pay a lot to film in the wilderness, at a low-budget motel, or on the back roads of Kentucky.
From the road picture scenario to the grainy look of the film, "Transamerica" is a low-budget film. And it works. But why can't a major studio spend some money on a project like this? Perhaps with the success of "Brokeback Mountain" and the positive reviews for Huffman in this film, studios will be more willing to make films exploring challenging themes like these. Not every film about gay people or people with challenging needs has to look like it was made with a couple of hand held cameras and a bootleg copy of AVID on someone's home computer.
I was also impressed with the resolution of "Transamerica". The film ends on a realistic note, the characters are happy with some of their accomplishments and unhappy with other aspects of their lives. They don't ride off into the sunset, happy as clams. Given the backgrounds of the characters, their problems, their secrets, their previous lives, this seems entirely realistic. If the characters resolved everything well and lived happily ever after, the film would end on a false note, changing our view of the project. We get the sense that Bree and her son will have to get to know each other some more, after we have gone home, in private.