Bree Osbourne (Felicity Huffman) is nearing the end of the psychoanalysis required for gender reassignment surgery. She takes hormones, lives as a woman, and tries her best not to stand out. She is a walking, talking contradiction: an ultraconservative woman living in the body of a gender dysphoric man. But that’s only the beginning.
Bree was born Stanley. And unbeknownst to Bree, Stanley fathered a son—a detail brought to Bree’s attention in the form of a very unexpected phone call. At the direction of her therapist, Bree flies from Los Angeles to New York City to tie up the loose ends of her former life and get her newly discovered teenage son, Toby, out of jail. After posting bail, Bree comes face to face with Toby, who then ironically mistakes her for a Christian missionary intent on introducing him to Jesus. Guilty, ashamed, and understandably bewildered by the situation, she absent-mindedly avoids the truth and adopts her assumed identity. Under her guise of piety, Bree learns a few unsavory details about her son’s life and it isn’t long before she talks herself into driving him from New York to Los Angeles. As intended, it makes for one bumpy ride.
A rare few films have dealt openly with the effects and process of gender reassignment surgery. HBO’s 2003 effort, “Normal,” offered an earnest portrayal of a Midwestern family coming to terms with a father’s gender identity disorder. The film tackled the reaction of the church, the surgery’s impact on friends and relatives, and the toll a decision of this caliber takes on a household and, more specifically, a marriage.
“Transamerica” skirts politics by asserting Bree’s deliberate anti-social lifestyle: she is single, lives hundreds of miles from her relatives, and is, for the most part, unreligious. And instead of dealing directly with controversial issues, the film favors a shared focus on strained parent-child relationships, the biological impact of gender reassignment, and the general population’s perception of transsexuals. Unfortunately, there are moments in the film when this approach either forces an odd departure from the story or proves too difficult to maintain, leaving three dramatic paths largely unexplored.
But the film isn’t entirely serious—after all, it is a dramedy.
In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of the film is that nearly all of its comic moments either make light of Bree’s bogus born-again Christian status or make reference to her Judeo-Christian upbringing. For instance, Bree’s rebellious sister, Sidney (Carrie Preston), makes a habit of countering every Christian utterance with its Hebrew equivalent, much to the dismay of her easily distressed Christian mom. The resulting nonverbal exchanges between mother and daughter are captured quite nicely.
But there’s more to “Transamerica” than terrific comic timing and an awkward story line: The film is packed with superb performances. Felicity Huffman delivers what is undoubtedly her finest work to date, serving up a surprisingly subtle portrayal of an otherwise outlandish character. Kevin Zegers renders disaffected youth with ease as Toby, and Fionnula Flanagan plays Bree’s overbearing mother, Elizabeth, with scene-stealing gusto. In other words, despite its story-related shortcomings, the combined talents of Huffman, Flanagan, and the rest of the cast make “Transamerica” worth the price of admission.