Transamerica

Felicity Huffman began as a stage actress with David Mamet’s theater company, and married Mamet regular William H. Macy, with whom she has often worked. She’s on a hit TV show right now; even so, she’s kept a modest profile. But now, with the movie Transamerica , which Macy produced, she has created a character who is as decent, big-hearted, maternal, and dogged as Frances McDormand’s Minnesota sheriff in Fargo . McDormand won the Oscar; Huffman is nominated. She might even win, and she certainly should.

It takes more than imagination for a woman to play a man who wants to be a woman; it takes bravery. You see Huffman wearing thick pancake makeup in the punishing Arizona sunlight. You see her in a girdle, then naked, both as a man and as a woman. You see her sob so hard she drools all over herself. Regardless of these indignities, the self-respect of the character and the actress who plays her shines through, and she’s all woman, all beautiful.

Huffman plays Bree, a transsexual man awaiting his final gender reassignment surgery. We learn a little bit about the endless electrolysis, hormone therapy, jaw reconstruction, and plastic surgery Bree has already endured, to say nothing of the little daily humiliations; even an eight year-old child asks, "Are you a boy or a girl?" Bree is scheduled for her final operation in one week, after which, as she says, she’ll have an "inny," not an "outie," and life should finally start getting easier.

But then Bree gets a call from Toby, Kevin Zegers, who claims to be her teenage son, who’s stuck in a New York City jail on a possession and prostitution charge. Bree wants nothing to do with him; but her therapist, Margaret (Elizabeth Pena), won’t sign off on the operation unless Bree faces her son.

Brie bails Toby out, and the two begin a road trip back to LA, where Toby has high hopes of becoming a porn star. There’s plenty of by-the-numbers "getting-to-know-you" stuff, and though it’s fond, it doesn’t play as funny as the over-confident screenplay would have it. At last, when Bree and Toby get stranded, and have to go to Bree’s ghastly family for help, the movie finds a rhythm for the last act.

But sometimes a camera has a way of catching more than a director planned. Transamerica is peopled with actors from the whole range of the Kinsey scale. Kevin Zegers, who plays Toby, is a perfect three on the scale: part River Phoenix, part Edward Furlong, a high-cheekboned androgyne. There’s a sloe-eyed hillbilly Lolita, a sunburnt, menopausal trophy wife, a living room full of men in drag, a hustler, a molester, and a scene that lingers on the smooth, white, naked body of a teenage boy-drifter.

This may sound like the roster of a quirky Tom Robbins book, but it’s not the characters themselves who are interesting. This is a fine point: it’s the sexuality of the actors that is real enough to add up to something. Transamerica is, beyond an affable but routine plot, a showcase of just how broad the landscape of sexual energy really is, and what a mysterious and endlessly fascinating thing is gender: three parts nature, two parts culture, one part nurture.

TransAmerica is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.

Peter Noble Kuchera

Originally from Columbus, Indiana, Peter moved to Bloomington in 1998. He completed four years of film study at the University of Minnesota and two years of film production in the Film Cities in St. Paul. He began reviewing movies for WFIU in 2003 and began producing on-air fundraising spots for WTIU in 2006. In 2008 he received a second place award for Best Radio Critic at the Los Angeles Press Club’s First Annual National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2008. Peter passed away suddenly on June 8, 2009.

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