Transamerica is not a movie about transsexuals sweeping the nation, as the eyebrow-raising title suggests. In his stunning feature debut, writer/director Duncan Tucker has created a touching, nonjudgmental human drama about a protagonist—Bree (Felicity Huffman)—who feels out of sorts with her body. She is an average, conservative woman dressing in business attire, trying to walk gracefully in high heels, and waking up fresh and early to apply her makeup. The only thing that separates her from other churchgoers is that beneath her lengthy skirt is a body part more offensive to her than holy treason: a penis.
But that’s about to change as Bree works several telemarketing jobs in Los Angeles to save up for her gender correction surgery. Her therapist (Elizabeth Pena) is prepared to approve the operation and hand over the necessary consent forms to the surgeons, until a surprise phone call interrupts Bree's life. A policeman in a county lockup facility in New York rings her up to say that a troubled teenager Toby (Kevin Zegers) has been arrested for stealing a frog and needs bail money. As it turns out, Bree fathered this child while living life as a man named Stanley, but had no idea of his existence. Her shrink refuses to green light the much-anticipated surgery until Bree acknowledges the presence of the kid and deals with the situation. Reluctantly, she agrees.
Flying across country to bail Toby out of jail (for a grand total of $1), she finds a teenager with a drug problem and a tendency to prostitute himself on the streets. Completely unaware that this lady is his parent—let alone his father—Toby assumes she is a missionary from a church trying to convert him, and Bree is left with no choice but to go along with the ploy. The twosome set out on a road trip cross country with different sets of false expectations. Toby thinks she is taking him to Los Angeles to find his wealthy father and become an adult film star; Bree is planning to drop him back home with the stepfather he ran away from long before they get there.
Things don’t go according to plan (when do they ever?), and Bree and Toby find themselves in various settings they weren’t intending. They stay one night with Bree’s friend, who is throwing a party full of transsexuals, and she is mortified at how Toby will react. But he isn’t put off by them; he points out how nice they seem. A trip to Bree’s childhood home shows her hysterical mother (Fionnula Flanagan) yelling without a mouth filter. “Where is my son?” she asks, even though she knows she is staring right at him. “We love you…we just don’t respect you” she adds for good measure. It becomes clear why Bree feels so alone in the world.
The gold of Transamerica is in the bond between Bree and Toby, who find they actually have a great deal in common. Neither one has ever felt like they completely fit in, and they are united by their fish-out-of-water outcast familiarities. Their kinship is incredibly strong and develops at a believable pace, even though they are playing facades with each other. Toby is not angry at discovering that Bree is actually a man; he is disappointed that she lied to him about it. Meanwhile, he’s been lying to her about kicking his drug habit and continues to turn tricks for money when she is distracted. We find ourselves dreading the moment when he finds out that she is actually his father, though we know it's inevitable, because we care about these characters and don’t want to see their relationship decompose. They may both be flawed outsiders, but they feel like real, fleshed-out people deserving of our compassion.
Felicity Huffman proves herself as a fantastic character actress, a woman playing a man playing a woman. It’s a very challenging part that she embodies with perfection. She has the occasionally clumsy, stiff mannerisms of a man trying to walk like a lady, and her voice sounds convincingly like a work in progress. Her knockout performance is matched by a promising turn from Kevin Zegers, who has come a long way from the Air Bud franchise. His brooding, beautiful face matched with raw, emotional talent could lead him to cinematic greatness, if he steers clear of the lucrative, vacant roles that Paul Walker turns down.
I have a lot of respect for Transamerica, because it never makes fun of the people in its story or tries to preach to us on the subject of ethics. It steers clear of pretentious moral lessons and instead tells a tale of eccentric friendship. The script is full of tongue-in-cheek humor, with Bree saying things like, “Please don’t call me dude” because for obvious reasons, she takes the slang literally. The film is phenomenally funny, and a wonderful blend of dark comedy and heart. The characters don’t sell out or change, they just seek acceptance for who they are, warts and all. If we’re lucky, we just might find that kind of love too.