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Transamerica: dysfunction by numbers

spiked-film: Duncan Tucker’s road movie about a transsexual substitutes revelations of abuse for character or plot development.

Tara McCormack

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Transamerica, directed by Duncan Tucker, on general release.

Transamerica tells the story of Bree, a transsexual (born Stanley) days away from the final operation that will finally transform him into a her.

Early in the film, she receives a call from someone in a New York prison who claims to be her 17-year-old son – a son whom she knew nothing about. It turns out that when she was still a man, she’d had a fleeting relationship with a woman. Bree’s therapist decides that Bree must achieve ‘closure’ on the issue of her newly discovered son before the therapist will sign the last bit of paper allowing Bree to have her operation.

Bree goes to New York, discovers that the 17-year-old has been making a living as a rent boy and is indeed her son. She pretends to be a Christian missionary, posts bail, and agrees to drive him to Los Angeles where he wants to pursue a career as a porn actor.

The central premise of a road movie is that the characters’ relationship develops as they travel together. The twist in Transamerica is that only one of the characters knows her true relationship with the other. The problem is that in place of character or plot development, Transamerica gives us a series of set pieces in which revelations of damage or abuse substitute for any kind of story.

For example, Bree decides to stop in the town where Toby grew up and reunite him with his stepfather. While there, we discover that Toby’s mother committed suicide; and Bree’s plan for a happy-family reunion backfires when Toby is confronted with his stepdad and reveals that this man sexually abused him.

Toby finds out the first part of Bree’s secret (that she is still biologically a man) when he accidentally catches sight of her having a pee, and sees that part of the male anatomy that Bree longs to be rid of. Bree anxiously asks him if he thinks she is a freak. But Toby doesn’t react with horror or disgust or shock, instead complaining that Bree lied to him.

After their car is stolen by a hitch-hiking fourth-level vegan, they quickly run out of cash; even worse (apparently), Bree no longer has her make-up. Toby sneaks off to give a blowjob to a lorry driver for money, while Bree is chatted up by a suave Native American (in whose culture transsexuals are really respected, don’t you know). He kindly offers them a place for the night, and a lift in the morning. After numerous nuggets of Native American wisdom, they are dropped off at Bree’s parents’ place – in whose culture transsexuals are definitely not respected.

Poor Bree – the font of her troubles are revealed in her mother. She is an overbearing, uptight, controlling and aggressive Christian. Bree’s father is weak and ineffectual. If only you had come to Church with me instead of going to the Synagogue with your dad, Bree’s mother says, you might not have turned out so weird (perhaps Bree’s father belongs to one of the liberal reform Synagogues?). To add to the general dysfunction, Bree’s younger sister turns out to be a recovering alcoholic. Bree eventually tells her family of her predicament – that the young man outside is in fact her son. They are not especially sympathetic.

Dysfunction goes from bad to worse when Toby decides to make a serious pass at Bree. She is horrified as the teen drops his clothes and tries to get into her bed. In order to forestall any more advances, Bree fesses up to Toby, who not surprisingly (considering that he just tried to shag his own father) freaks out and disappears into the night. Can Bree make amends with her son and get the operation she so desires?

For some reason, Felicity Huffman was nominated for an Oscar and received a Golden Globe for her role as Bree. Yet the script is so banal that the only possible reason for the film’s nomination is that Hollywood wants to show its responsible attitude to ‘isshoos’ by giving the nod to a film about transsexuality. The characters seem to have been thought up by the American equivalent of the UK Social Exclusion Unit, and the film has all the emotional depth and subtlety of those episodes of EastEnders written in response to whatever social issue is on the government agenda at the time.

The film only deals with transsexuality in a crude, comedy of errors way. The relationship between Bree and Toby is undeveloped and unexplored, while Bree’s character remains entirely one-dimensional – the mere fact of her transsexuality substituting for anything else more interesting. And Huffman makes an unconvincing transsexual, tottering exaggeratedly on high heels and delivering her lines in a flat monotone. Flat like the film itself.

Read on:

In spiked-film last week: Suchandrika Chakrabarti on Inside Man.

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