Transamerica (US - DVD R1)
Put on your most sensible shoes and cross-country ride with Gabe Powers...
Bree (Felicity Huffman) is a self-motivated, slightly snobbish male-to-female transsexual. She's mere days away from the operation that will finally make her a physically real woman, when she receives a phone call informing her that she may have a son left over from her bygone days as a man. At the behest of her psychiatrist, who will not sign the papers allowing her to go through with the operation unless Bree is at a psychologically stable space in her life, our heroine flies out from Los Angeles to New York to bail her possible son, Toby, out of jail.
Toby has been jailed for drug use, but also has the rap sheet of a hustler, or male prostitute, not exactly a safe profession amongst the hustle and bustle of New York City. After much consideration, Bree decides to bring Toby on a road trip back to LA, in the hopes of pawning him off on his stepfather on the way. What Toby doesn't know is that this woman posing as a Christian missionary may very well be the father he's heard so much about. Bree hopes to keep her identity a secret, and plans on going through with her surgery that weekend as soon as she rids herself of her would-be son, who she never asked for. On the road, complications occur.
Transamerica works because it doesn't present itself as a message movie (yes, I stole that phrase from Felicity Huffman herself). Like Brokeback Mountain, the main characters are of controversial sexual orientation, but their drama derives from their surprisingly human and understandable problems. By not presenting Bree as some sort of pity worthy freak, the film deals with the possible controversies of her gender bending in an adult and praise worthy fashion.
Felicity Huffman really earns her Academy Award nomination, in a role that transcends actual gender. This is possible the most believable woman posing as a man posing as a woman ever committed to celluloid. At first viewers are very much aware of the actresses actual sex, but through-out the early stages of the film she is thoroughly established as a man, and later as a woman trapped in a man's body, who in the end will become a full woman. Could a man have pulled this off with more conviction? I'm not sure, but I have trouble picturing anyone else in this role.
The problem I had with the film was its balance of dark and humorous content. This is writer/director Duncan Tucker's first film, and though he navigates a very sensitive subject with humour and maturity, he has not yet found that perfect balance of melancholy, horror, and comedy that more adept writer/directors such as P.T. Anderson and Wes Anderson have all but crystallized. The shift in emotion often feels like a thinly veiled shock-tactic meant to keep the possibly waning audience riveted.
At its base, Transamerica is a road movie, and like all good road movies its leads meet interesting people, have ten-minute mini-adventures, and find their character arcs in the end. In this way the film is unfortunately predictable. Tucker never stoops to severely physically injuring his characters, but the constant waiting for the dropping of the other shoe slides from suspenseful to frustrating in some cases. I'm happy that Tucker didn't feel the need to have Bree beaten or raped to prove her sympathetic nature, but by the time her and Toby arrive at her parents house in Phoenix, I was sort of done with her drama.
Though the dark aspects of the film grated on me a bit, the humour was fresh all around. Bree's snobbery in the face of Toby's childlike sloppiness is charming every time. Witnessing Bree accepting her role as a parent is touching, and presenting this through humour rather than sappy, teary-eyed close-ups is inspired. This goes back to the notion of presenting a controversial subject in a mature and realistic manner, as I personally find the usual Hollywood sentiment false and unrealistic.
The film is a good one, and a fantastic début for Duncan Tucker, but it falls short when compared to other modern masterpieces in the skewed-dramedy sub-genre. I found myself so happy with the original story elements that I was less willing to overlook the more over played ones. The acting is superb all around, including a warm cameo from the ever-dependable Graham Greene as a possible love interest for Bree, and the closest thing to a real father figure Toby finds the entire film.
Though a modestly budgeted affair taking place on the open road, Transamerica is still surprisingly dirty. Detail levels aren't as sharp as I'd like them either. Some of the source lit sequences are overly dark, making everything a little muddy and unpleasing to the eye. Brighter scenes, despite the grain, are usually very colourful without bleeding. It's too bad that the vibrant hues couldn't be displayed with a little more clarity.
The music utilized throughout the film is a little on the sappy side, but never quite reached the level of fingernails on a chalkboard annoyance. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix is low-key, as one might expect, but gets the job done. The open road is subtly dotted with outdoor ambiance, and dialogue is always clear and centred. The music tracks won't give your system any kind of workout, but such audio fury would prove entirely unnecessary.
The extra features on this DVD belong to two people, director Duncan Tucker, and singer Dolly Parton. Tucker makes his presence known not only on his solo commentary track, but also on the actor interviews. The commentary I'll give him; it's his commentary, and he delivers. He is consistently engaging and contagiously excited throughout. If there's anything you wanted to know about the making of Transamerica, this track is your one stop ticket. It is on the brief-ish actor interviews that Tucker begins to grate a bit. I'm pretty sure there is a moderator or interviewer behind the questions, but for all intents and purposes Tucker takes control, even repeating the commentary track on occasion. Huffman is better at holding her ground than Kevin Zegers (who played Toby), and she manages to get a few tidbits about her craft into the discussion.
The rest of the features are pretty fluffy and mostly revolve around Dolly Parton's end title song ‘Travelin' Through’. There's a music video, which is the usual singer singing inter-spliced with film footage kind of thing. That's followed by a making of the music video, which is mostly Tucker talking about the song (which he already did at the end of the commentary), while poor Kevin Zegers sits silently next to him. The song it self is the usual, middle-aged woman anthem, full of saccharin and lavender. Not really my thing, but I appreciate the fact that Dolly can still belt out the high notes with the best of them. Things are wrapped up with some bloopers and a trailer.
I didn't fall in love with the epic plight of Bree, but I did enjoy the journey. Despite some thematic missteps and slight case of the same-ole'-same-ole's, Transamerica is a great way to introduce the controversial subjects of transsexuality and street hustling to grandma. Actress Felicity Huffman gives a knockout performance that lives up to the ridiculous hype built-up around it. The DVD has some video issues, but a solid commentary makes it a worthy purchase for fans of the flick.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 23rd May 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Commentary by Director Duncan Tucker, Conversation with Duncan Tucker and Felicity Huffman, Conversation with Duncan Tucker and Kevin Zegers, Dolly Parton Music Video 'Travelin' Thru', 'Travelin' Thru: Behind the Scenes' Featurette
Easter Egg: No
Director: Duncan Tucker
Cast: Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers, Fionnula Flanagan, Elizabeth Peña, Graham Greene
Genre: Comedy and Drama
Length: 104 minutes
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