First things first: Felicity Huffman rocks. She's the saving grace of the faux-edgy, insufferably "ironic" prime-time soap Desperate Housewives, and with her back-to-back Emmy and Golden Globe awards, her years of scene-stealing obscurity are finally beginning to pay off. Without her, the new comedy-drama Transamerica might be just another clever indie road movie, too deliberately offbeat for its own good. But by digging her fuchsia Payless heels into the role of a pre-op transsexual reunited with the son she never knew, Huffman elevates the movie above its occasionally self-satisfied, Sundance-friendly script.
This isn't The Crying Game or Boys Don't Cry or even Breakfast on Pluto. No one's particularly surprised by the revelation of our heroine Bree's original gender, and there are no fabulously over-the-top outfits in her closet. Transamerica charts the awkward last stage of changes of one not-so-femme male into a full-blooded female, and from its first scene, Huffman makes a stunningly convincing chick with a dick. Adding a husky tenor to her voice and walking with a delicate-but-awkward stride, the actress fully embraces her masculine side, and hyper-feminizes all of the qualities making her a woman. It's a fearless performance, one that invites knowing laughter but never derision or scorn: You're with Bree from the first time you lay eyes on her, and for all her insecurities and manliness, there's never any doubt that she should be anything but a biological woman.
The film's plot is functional, if a little frustrating. As a final hurdle before gender-reassignment surgery, Bree's therapist (Elizabeth Peña) orders her to make amends with the son she fathered back when she was still a man, during an ill-advised college fling. Bree travels to New York City, where she finds the wayward, teenage Toby (Kevin Zegers) incarcerated for hustling and minor drug possession. Afraid to reveal the nature of their relationship, she poses as a charitable Christian a sort of tranny Church Lady and vows to reunite him with his foster father down South. Though that meeting goes badly, Bree feels a maternal/paternal bond with the impudent boy, and decides to take him (and Toby complains, drugs up and turns tricks all the way).
Transamerica is refreshingly free of moralizing, but writer-director Duncan Tucker insists on piling on the indie clichés, which hamstrings the picture; not only is Bree a tranny, her son is a gay junkie hustler and her family is a bourgeois nightmare. When she has to make a pit stop at her parents' house, their collective dysfunctions are almost enough to sink the film. Even the pun in the title Transamerica smacks of a filmmaker who's trying too hard. (It's about a transsexual person traveling cross-country, get it?!) Still, Tucker works well with actors, and he manages to balance the skilled performances of Huffman, and Burt Young and a hilarious Fionnula Flanagan (Bree's parents), with the less-proven talents of the young Zegers.
But it's Huffman who ensures that the film will resonate with Heartland America, including audience members who don't have any experience with transsexuals (or don't think they have). A lesser actor might have dwelled on the comical aspects of Bree's appearance, or worse, shallowly focused on the parlor trick of acting like a man who acts like a woman. As Huffman plays it, Bree's determination to overcome her unwanted appendage seems like a universal struggle. You can almost hear the Housewives fans at least the ones who've never seen an indie movie before recommending Transamerica to each other: "You know, it's quirky!"
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.