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A ‘Desperate Housewife’ shines in Transamerica

by Glen Baity

Late in 2005, while every braying jackass in the public square was readying an already-tired bundle of Brokeback Mountain jokes, another film that focuses on contentious gender issues crept into theaters in limited release, garnering quiet praise for its star’s amazing performance and registering scarcely a blip on the radar of the conservative shouting heads already overworked from slamming two separate George Clooney films. That movie, Transamerica, has finally come to Greensboro, and whether or not the film finds an audience locally or not, it stands as a tremendous achievement for first-time writer/director Duncan Tucker, and a fine viewing experience for those who seek it out.

A virtually unrecognizable Felicity Huffman plays Sabrina ‘“Bree’” Osbourne, formerly Stanley Schupek, a transsexual who works as a dishwasher in a Mexican restaurant. As the film begins Bree is a week away from undergoing the operation that will remove her few remaining male attributes, and she’s investing all her hopes in the prospect that the procedure will give her the wholeness she’s lacked her entire life. Her preparations are complicated by the revelation that she fathered a child 17 years previously, who is now a drug-addicted male prostitute in New York City.

Bree travels from Los Angeles to New York to bail her son Toby out of jail, posing as a volunteer church worker to shield the already-troubled youth from a potentially volatile reality. Guilt-stricken about her son’s sordid life, she agrees to drive Toby to LA so he can pursue a career as an actor, and the film unfolds over the course of their cross-country road trip.

People who aren’t turned off by that pesky ‘ick’ factor might be apprehensive about viewing Transamerica because they’re afraid of being battered over the head with a political screed. As someone who sat through The Life of David Gale, I understand those reservations, and maybe it’s just the moral relativist in me talking, but there really isn’t any ‘agenda’ to be found here. Bree’s sole ambition is to feel okay with herself while blending in to the greatest extent possible.

That said, the film, simply by virtue of its protagonist and subject matter, does confront a number of taboos, and some of the resolutions will have moviegoers of a certain temperament screaming ‘secular humanism.’ Hey, there are plenty of Films Everyone Can Agree On in the world, and Transamerica, at least in this generation, won’t be one of them. But it’s an important film because it places its characters in a very real context ‘— Bree lives in an ordinary neighborhood, works two jobs that a lot of people work, scrapes out a living, and keeps to herself. The ‘radical’ thing about her is that she’s so much like everyone else, excepting the fact that her name used to be Stan. She’s not strutting down a catwalk to ‘“Lady Marmalade;’” she’s not a reclusive serial killer; she’s just a normal person whose life puts her at odds with normality as most people understand it. If audiences come away with a little more empathy, I fail to see the down side.

The film does take a few easy pot shots that prove ill-fitting in this package. Some of the supporting characters, particularly Bree’s mother (Fionnula Flanagan) are cartoonishly evil and one-sided, and consequently, several of her principal scenes are a distasteful because they cast off the subtlety that makes the rest of Transamerica so sublime. Also, speaking as a Southerner by birth, the portrayals of this region (which act as the setting for roughly a third of the film) are a little grating ‘— I haven’t seen a cluster of 80-year-olds sitting outside a general store in a long, long time.

It also becomes increasingly implausible as the film rolls along that Toby doesn’t see through Bree’s ruse, and a few conveniences in the script threaten to lower the film to a sitcom-caliber farce.

But these flaws do no lasting damage to what, as a whole, is a beautiful piece of filmmaking. Transamerica stretches across boundaries because it is, at its core, about a group of people leading sad, solitary lives who, despite social norms and intense familial enmity, find refuge in one another. It’s also a film about family bonds, which aren’t easy to articulate in a believable and interesting way. Finally, it’s an engaging, often funny road movie through the heart of modern America, in all its majesty and dysfunction, set to a brilliantly assembled soundtrack capped off by Dolly Parton’s Oscar-nominated ‘“Travelin’ Thru.’” Gradually paced but never boring, Transamerica is a disarming film that will impress audiences brave enough to glimpse into the lives of the people around them.

What on earth could Glen Baity possibly have against Brokeback Mountain jokes? Ask him yourself when you e-mail your comments to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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