Agenda bending

Film - A transsexual's story shows minorities can be moral, too, writes Victoria Segal


"We walk among you," deadpans a female-to-male transsexual in Duncan Tucker's Transamerica. Delivered as a theatrical, B-movie warning, it sounds like the religious right's worst nightmare - a sexual Invasion of the Body Snatchers where God-given chromosomes are warped into new forms and every satin ruffle, every beard bristle, could hide a girl named Tom or a boy named Sue. Sure enough, in her high-collared dresses and prim pink skirts, Bree Osbourne (Felicity Huffman) certainly "passes", looking like the kind of sturdy conservative who would be equally at home picketing a gay wedding or leading South Dakota's anti-abortion charge. Born Stanley, however, she leads a lifestyle that most church matrons would consider deviant: a pre-operative transsexual "living stealth" in a run-down corner of Los Angeles.

Tucker's film, meanwhile, creates exactly the opposite impression, clothing itself in subject matter that seems controversial but being a deeply con- ventional morality tale underneath, as American as pop's apple pie. Like all great road movies, it's really about the journey of the characters. It involves a race against time, a hidden identity, a quest. And ultimately, it is about the primacy of family and friends, and how decency begets decency. That it also happens to feature prosthetic genitalia really doesn't matter.

The director first conceived the film when a female friend confided that she had been born a man. Transamerica is a plea for tolerance in the face of an in- creasingly repressive political climate. It exudes a gentle comedy and quiet warmth - a quality that stems largely from Huffman's Oscar-nominated performance as Bree. After years of passing as a "GG" (genetic girl), she is preparing for the final, decisive operation. Her sympathetic psychiatrist (Elizabeth Peña) has barely signed the forms when Bree reveals that she just received a phone call telling her that Stanley's son - conceived during a "tragically lesbian" college encounter - is in jail in New York. The therapist (who thought Bree was a virgin) is as shocked as her patient, and refuses to hand over the consent forms until the ex-Stanley comes to terms with his past. So Bree, masquerading as a missionary for "the Church of the Potential Father", heads for New York to bail out Toby (Kevin Zegers), a Bruce Weber-style hustler who dreams of making porn films. Despite herself, a parental gene kicks in, and Bree agrees to drive him back to Los Angeles, without admitting the truth behind her biological background . . . or behind his.

As the title suggests, this is a film as much about America as it is about gender, examining what it is like to live in a place where a man can become anything he wants - even a woman - and yet where ridicule, repression and political censure lurk down every highway. The travellers meet good folk, including a Native American called Calvin Many Goats (Graham Greene) who falls for Bree, but also bad people such as Toby's abusive stepfather and Bree's ghastly mother, played with the petulance of an ageing child star by Fionnula Flanagan. The opening scene shows Bree watching a "training video" for male-to-female transsexuals, working on her voice modulation and intoning "This is the voice I want to use" - a lesson in speaking freely in the land of the free. As they head west, however, Bree and Toby look like imported species amid the horses and barns of small-town America, the kind of alien creatures that can't help but disturb the ecosystem. Zegers isn't the most charismatic actor, but his damaged blankness makes him a perfect foil for Huffman's deadpan rectitude. They are two people ill at ease in their own bodies, Toby taking drugs and Bree popping her hormones, each trying to escape the solid facts of their physicality.

Huffman gives herself over to the character entirely, to the extent that, when you see the post-operative Bree naked in a bath, you are amazed at how much like a woman she looks. At one point she breaks down and a huge string of saliva droops from her mouth. With a lesser actor, you would cynically think: "That's the Oscar nomination, right there in that spit." But Huffman is never flash. She looks oddly off-centre, jumbled together, like a photofit rather than a real person. The wedge heels, the high necks, the lip liner - the more Bree armours herself, the more vulnerable she looks, like a tender-bodied crab dragging a shell that doesn't fit. She shows how all-consuming "living stealth" is - the dependence on hormone pills and make-up bags, the sudden risk of revelation in the stare of a curious child, the fear of an inappropriate touch.

Yet while Bree might not be a natural woman, she is a natural parent, hilariously correcting Toby's grammar and advocating the use of a fork. As she says, "My body may be a work in progress but there's no-thing wrong with my soul." Transamerica makes it clear to the guardians of righteousness that minorities can be moral, too.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Trident