Trust a transgender road movie to reveal much about the human condition. You can watch it now at SBS On Demand.
27 Feb 2015 - 11:28 AM  UPDATED 20 Mar 2015 - 11:59 AM

It’s out of left field

By the time the lights came up on the closing credits of the Transamerica’s world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2005, it was abundantly clear to everyone in the cinema they’d just seen an astutely made gender dramedy by a gifted filmmaker. The ecstatic response to the film at the Toronto festival six months later confirmed Transamerica had a unique and distinct voice. That writer-director Duncan Tucker hasn’t made a feature since in no way negates the power and importance of this sharp-tongued valentine to sexual identity, personal eccentricities and the resilience of the human spirit—no matter how knocked about that spirit has become.

Write what you know

Combining intense research on male-to-female transsexuals with bits of his own family history and the over-arching themes of the misfit/outsider, Tucker (who was born in Arizona, where much of Transamerica was shot) blends these elements seamlessly into the story of fussbudget Bree (Felicity Huffman), who on the eve of approval for her surgery discovers she has a son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), from a dimly-remembered tryst. Toby is as prejudiced as he is defiant, and on their car trip west—Bree for the operation, Toby with aspirations to join the porn industry—their encounters with his parents (Fionnula Flanagan, Burt Young) and a courtly cowboy named Calvin Two Goats (Graham Greene) provide Tucker much grist for the mill of benevolent comedy, as Toby slowly discovers his father’s secrets.

That performance by Felicity Huffman

Tucker was determined a woman play Bree, and Huffman was at the top of his list. With only 14 weeks before the actress began production on the TV show Desperate Housewives, production was kick-started and completed at an unusually frenetic pace. The director recounts Huffman’s increasing agitation at Bree’s dilemma in life and those emotions show through in a fearless performance of arrogance and vulnerability that earned her that year’s Golden Globe, Independent Spirit, National Board of Review, Tribeca Film Festival and GLAAD Media awards for Best Actress. Injecting a note of poignancy, Bree’s therapist is played by Elizabeth Peña, who recently died of cirrhosis of the liver.

Another tonal triumph

There’s a fine line between comedy and cruelty, one which Tucker and his acting troupe walk with triumphant aplomb. Transamerica is played mostly straight, with laughs coming from absurd situations and the shock of the familiar (particularly in the reaction of Bree’s parents to her son’s makeover). The production design emphasises the cluttered conservative charm of middle America with obvious affection, and the end result is a movie that looks affectionately at its conflicted characters—think John Waters by way of Alexander Payne (whose Sideways was a sizeable hit the same year as Transamerica). Here’s hoping Tucker, who took nearly two years off after the film to become a single parent, can return with a sophomore effort.

Watch Transamerica in full below or at SBS On Demand: