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Movie Review


Published February 22, 2006 at 5:00 a.m.

"Dangerous Housewife" Felicity Huffman steps out of the suburbs and into the year's most unusual road movie. She plays a man who's about to complete his hard-won transformation into a woman when destiny quite literally calls. Sabrina -- Bree for short -- lives in Los Angeles, dresses like an Avon lady, and works two jobs to finance his final surgery which, as the movie opens, is only a week away. While working as a telemarketer out of his home one evening, he receives a call for Stanley. "He doesn't live here anymore," Bree informs the police officer, who's telephoning from New York to inform him that his 17-year-old son has been arrested and is in need of bailing out.

Like Bill Murray's character in Broken Flowers, Huffman's did not suspect he had a son. Bree is hesitant to make the trip because missing his appointment would mean waiting another year and because, well, how exactly do you explain to a troubled teen that the father he's reached out to uses the ladies' room?

The issue is decided by Bree's therapist, played by Elizabeth Pena. She won't sign the consent form for the surgery unless Bree meets face to face with his son and comes to terms with their connection. As Bree understands the boy's situation, his mother has died but is survived by the boy's stepfather, who's living in Kentucky. So, when the two first meet, Bree allows Toby (Kevin Zegers) to believe that he is a female Christian caseworker whose mission is to return strayed sheep to the flock. He offers the kid a ride to L.A., but what he secretly plans to do is return him on the way to what's left of his family.

What Zegers' character wants, however, is a ride all the way to Hollywood. He has survived by becoming a male prostitute, and dreams of bettering himself by getting into gay porn. He believes his real father "has a mansion there with a pool," and will no doubt possess the necessary show-business connections. The film's considerable poignancy and wry humor proceed from the irony that, as the two make their cross-country drive, the father Toby thinks is thousands of miles away is sitting right beside him. Then there's the way Bree instinctively mothers the boy. From the moment they meet, he can't help himself. He morphs into June Cleaver, insisting the kid wear his seatbelt, forcing him to eat his vegetables and disapproving sternly when he snorts a bag of smack.

Their odyssey consists of a series of small, off-kilter moments, which range in tone from the lightly comic to the tragic. First-time writer-director Duncan Tucker is interested in the transgender experience somewhat less than the human experience; what we really have here is the story of two people discovering their importance to each other against a backdrop of hormone pills, electrolysis, sexual hustling and drug abuse. It's what you might wind up with if John Waters directed an episode of "Growing Pains."

Among the low points in their journey: the reunion between the boy and his stepfather -- a reunion he resisted for excellent reasons, as it turns out; it's a sad, sleazy sequence. The high point has to be the chance encounter with a good soul played by Graham Greene, who gives them a ride after their car is stolen, offers them a place to spend the night, and falls head over cowboy-boot heels for Bree. It may not quite be Brokeback Mountain -- only one half of the couple wears a Stetson -- but it's among the more extraordinary movie love connections in recent memory.

Will Bree make it back to the West Coast in time for his operation? Once the young man learns the truth about his father, will he still want to forge a relationship? If Zegers does make a gay porn film, will it have a really bad pun in the title? From the film's opening frame to its last, Tucker and company create such enormously likable characters, and take them on such a charmingly offbeat journey of self discovery, the trip's over way too soon. This is a remarkably deft debut for the director, and the most remarkable thing in it -- Huffman's restrained, detailed and dignified performance -- is richly deserving of the Oscar for which it has been nominated. If you see just one movie about an underage prostitute and a man in women's outfits crossing the nation this year, make it Transamerica.