Heralded as something of a coup for the trans community when the movie burst forth, Transamerica certainly brought with it it's fair share of controversy. Whilst there were some actual transgender actresses in it like Calpernia Addams who was made famous by the true story Soldier's Girl and Andrea James, Calpernia's partner in Deep Stealth Productions, an entertainment and media service that also creates voice training videos for transwomen. There's talk of dilators, hormones and tracheal shaves, the sort of technical detail that those outside of the transgender community probably don't see or hear too much about. And there's the awkwardness of a new transwoman, trying to find her femininity and the struggles woith money and gender roles it often brings.
Yet despite this deeper than usual perspective on a transexual woman's life the lead character, Bree, is played by the star of Desperate Housewives, Felicity Huffman, a natural born female. In fact Huffman was trained in how to appear more passable as a transexual woman by both Deep Stealth Productions and FemImage coach, Denae Doyle. Trained or not, Huffman pulls off a naturally talented performance with a stiffness of movement and deliberateness of poise that's touchingly accurate yet avoids being condescending. Huffman's Bree has been transitioning for 3 years and has finally gotten right to the point where her vaginoplasty can happen. Her dream has always been to live in the world as a woman and she's worked (and suffered) long and hard for this moment.
A week before her sexual reassignment surgery is due Bree discovers she has a son she never knew on the other coast of America. Her therapist refuses to sign off her surgery unless she contacts him and so Bree travels to New York where she finds Toby in jail. After bailing him out, Bree travels with him back to LA, fighting with issues of coming out, parenting and self acceptance. It turns out that whilst Bree's absenteeism had allowed her to go on and transition, the void left by the father figure in Toby's life has created all kinds of dark shadows and both parties are in for plenty of surprises on the journey.
Huffman's performance won a Golden Globe as well as a string of other awards and nominations. Touchy, heart wrenching, funny and soothing in varying proportions, the intensity of emotion with which a transitioning transexual lives their life is all so apparent and gets multiplied by the amped up Toby and a combination of characters they bump into while heading transamerica. Huffman later said:
"I know as actors our job is usually to shed our skins, but I think as people our job is to become who we really are, and so I would like to salute the men and women who brave ostracism, alienation and a life lived on the margins to become who they really are."
On the one hand, you constantly feel for Bree. After all it's not lying is it? Why should she blurt of out "Hi I'm a transexual" everytime someone meets her.
On the other hand you feel for the people who become drawn to this very proper lady. In that it does do something to illustrate wonderfully the trans experience where there's always this dreaded feeling of having to confront outing oneself. Done too soon and one looks a fool. Without yet having made an emotional connection with the other party, the chances of being ridiculed or worse are far higher. And conversely, if you wait till the other has deep feelings towards you, they may well be offended that something so seemingly significant was kept back so late.
As the cover of the DVD so rightly says "Life is more than the sum of it's parts". Huffman's performance and Duncan Tucker's excellent direction and screenplay vividly illustrate many complexities of the transgender experience. There are direct answers to stereotypes like the notion that transgenders are just men who like to wear skirts and want their penises chopped off. More importantly it answers the bigger question of are these people human after all? With her struggles to please her parents, care for her son and find her own happiness, Bree answers it with a heart warming yes. Pure chicken soup for the soul; if you haven't seen Transamerica, you've missed a landmark in the culture of our kind.