By Beccy Reese
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Road to Change

This article is over 15 years, 10 months old
Review of 'Transamerica', director: Duncan Tucker
Issue 304

The premise of the road movie has been well rehearsed. The long journey, cut off from usual concerns, provides an opportunity for characters to explore their identity and find out who they really want to be. That concept of long distance road travel is a bit of an anathema to British island dwellers, but in this film there are plenty of shots of a lonely car travelling through huge panoramas to make the point.

Bree, a pre-operative male transsexual, is one week from her operation. Everything is in place, and both therapist and doctor agree she’s ready. And then comes the hitch. Bree receives a call for help from Toby, her previously undiscovered son, who she fathered 17 years ago. Her therapist refuses to give consent for the operation until this “loose end” is tied up. So Bree goes to bail out Toby.

She decides not to reveal who she is to Toby, but can’t leave him in his drug-filled, shabby life, and offers to drive him to California. His ambition is to move from prostitution on the streets of New York to a career in the porn industry. Bree’s plan is to reunite Toby with his stepfather, which turns out to be a disaster. Their journey continues, bringing them into contact with a gathering of transsexuals in Dallas, a charming New Mexican horse breeder, and a hippy traveller who proves to be a huge liability.

Finally Bree feels forced to look up her family, who haven’t come to grips with her decisions – especially her mother, who is then excited to discover she has a grandson.

Felicity Huffman’s portrayal of a technically challenging role is staggering, leading to an Oscar nomination for best actress. The pristine, long-skirted, soft-flowing pink suits and overdone make-up help to create a prim and proper female persona. Every detail of Bree is constructed to stealthily exist without drawing attention, creating some subtle humour in the screenplay. Occasionally the structure cracks, and Huffman deals with this perfectly.

The plot is clunky in places, especially when Bree feels forced to reveal her true relationship to Toby. He has already discovered her gender, but this disclosure proves tougher. This pivotal point in the film felt like it played merely as a device to get the characters where they needed to be.

Throughout the film a relationship develops between Bree and Toby. Bree tries to inform her new-found son about the world around them, and chides him for his use of language, taking drugs, smoking, and putting his feet up on the coffee table. However, there are other parts of his lifestyle that are a bit more questionable, which go uncriticised either by Bree or by the film in any way.

Given the slew of interesting, thought-provoking US cinema around at the moment, this slightly flawed debut from Duncan Tucker wouldn’t be the first on my list to watch this month. Nevertheless the subtle humour and the lack of sentimentality create a likeable film, the calibre of the acting provides a believable piece and I’ll be interested to see what he does next.

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