I’m not sure I’ve watched more than a couple minutes of Transamerica since my first viewing, and I’m skeptical about how well it holds up. If nothing else, it’s clearer by now that casting a cisgendered actress in a transgendered role is a problematic choice. At the time, though, it was a major step forward to simply afford a character such as Bree dignity and agency. I might write this piece differently now. This is how I wrote it then. This was originally posted at my former online home.
Felicity Huffman is terrific in Transamerica. She plays Bree, a transgender woman days away from the operation that will provide her with the biological sex that matches the one already firmly established in her heart, mind, and soul. In presentation, the role holds an element of stunt to it. We watch, at least initially, to see how Huffman will tackle the contours of the character’s conflicted nature. What cues of body language will she employ to illustrate the dueling genders beneath the surface of Bree? How will she shade her voice? It is the actor as magician and we’re watching a little more intently to discover how the trick is done.
To her credit, Huffman avoids this trap. She quickly settles on some simple, effective bits of physicality that help define Bree: a certain stiffness in her comportment, a simple series of body language cues to keep others at length, all the better to prevent close inspections. With these elements sketched into place, Huffman concentrates on finding and relaying Bree as a person impacted by her trans identity but not defined by it. The impact is deep, of course, but, as opposed to what other good actors might do, Huffman uses it as an entry into fully understanding the whole character. Bree is shaped by her nature, an existence in which many of her external expressions of self are contradicted by her own physical features. In a way she is engages in an ongoing masquerade of her own future, who she is announced in a mixture of hope and personal definition by force of will. Huffman uses these things as a means to key in to Bree’s frustration, self-reliance, loneliness, and caution.
She fares better than the film that serves as her vehicle. First-time feature director Duncan Tucker is clearly well-intentioned, and he deserves credit for his part in the collaboration with Huffman that created so rich a character as Bree, but he has also constructed a weak product built on that hoariest of filmic frameworks: road movie with two mis-matched travelers. The plot is set in motion when Bree journeys from California to New York City to meet the son she unknowingly fathered some two decades earlier. She buys a car there and the pair begin a cross-country trek back to Los Angeles, with the son unaware of the family connection between the two of them. The stops along the way lead to situations that are didactically manipulative, broadly comic, and, by the time they get to Arizona, a muscle-tensing combination of both.
It’s significantly better when the film stays in the car with Bree and her son (played well enough by Kevin Zegers, who has apparently logged several cinematic hours with a highly athletic golden pooch) because then we focus on the characters rather than watch them flounder around in the constructed conflicts of uninspired screenwriting. Tucker has created some interesting people, but his strained story keeps getting in their way. It certainly doesn’t stop Felicity Huffman from turning in an inspired, committed performance, but it makes you wish the film itself had come somewhere near her level of accomplishment.