One week before her sex-change operation, Bree (Felicity Huffman) receives a call from a 17-year-old (Kevin Zegers) identifying himself as her son from a college liaison. Bree's psychiatrist won't approve the surgery until she deals with this relationship, so she flies to New York City, bails the youth out of juvenile detention, and offers him a ride back to LA without disclosing that she is his father.
2006 looks like an interesting year as far as queer film goes with a number of 'queer' stories due to invade the ostensibly straight space of mainstream cinema.
Already 'out', Ang Lee's very straight 'cowboy love' movie Brokeback Mountain has nonetheless sparked much debate around its repressed sexual politics, the ire of Marlboro Men everywhere, and no doubt it will sweep this year's Academy Awards for the sensitive portrayal of two straight boys in love.
Capote is another certain for this year's Oscars, with the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Truman Capote with all the camp aplomb and sociopathic brilliance of the great writer himself. And due out later this year is Breakfast On Pluto, Crying Game-director Neil Jordan's latest film to profile a man living as a woman, this time a cabaret singer from the 1960s.
Another Oscar contender, Transamerica, is about to be released on Australian screens. Starring Desperate Housewife Felicity Huffman in the lead, she plays Bree (formerly Stanley), a pre-op transsexual who cannot wait to go through her final physical transformation and become the woman she's always known herself to be.
Cut off from her family and with only her therapist to count on, she is just days away from having her final sexual reassignment surgery. Then the phone rings' Bree discovers that she has a son from a very distant previous relationship and her therapist refuses to allow her to go through with the 'big op' until she has become a real man/woman/adult and deals with the situation at hand.
Ever-so reluctantly the conservative Bree travels from LA to New York to bail her son Toby (Kevin Zegers) out of jail. A 17 year-old street kid hell-bent on becoming a porn star, she conceals her identity from Toby, preferring instead to pass herself off as Christian missionary out to rescue his soul.
With the clock ticking Bree and Toby take a road trip back to LA, bonding the way a mother and son should do until the truth gets in the way of the happiness both are dreaming of. It's a nice idea for a movie for sure, and plays out as warm family/family-friendly comedy, treading lightly around the ignominies and humiliations transsexuals often face in their daily lives. Huffman studiously enacts the role, duly dropping her voice and moving through scenes with all the awkwardness of an ugly duckling about to become a swan. It is perhaps an even stranger experience to watch a woman play a man who is about to become a woman, than to simply see a man frock up for the role (think Terence Stamp in Priscilla Queen Of The Desert (1994), or John Lithgow in The World According To Garp (1982). Both did great jobs).
According to Transamerica's filmmakers, this decision was largely motivated by the need to convince the audience that Bree was an authentic female character.
Huffman is convincing enough, bringing a warm touch to what she found a 'challenging' role. She plays Bree uptight, slightly quirky and neurotic, but decidedly ordinary, the aim being she could be any one of us.
Unfortunately this understated approach backfires. Transamerica occupies the no man's land between queer and straight film. It isn't committed enough to either side of the fence, vanilla with its queer politics, and scant in its depiction of straight family. This is a forgettable comedy of errors closer to an inoffensive telemovie than a fully fleshed out feature that leaves its mark, and how. Having seen some great films about transgender characters ' the aforementioned Boys Don't Cry (1999), Hedwig & The Angry Inch (2001), documentary Southern Comfort (2001) to name but a few - this doesn't quite cut it. I guess I want my queer films to make me sit up and take notice, not stay in the middle of the road, and that's where Transamerica well and truly sits. Transamerica is really an attempt at a gentle comedy about a tricky situation. Again, it's a nice idea. But it doesn't quite work on the big screen.