It has been 53 years since the former Marine, George Jorgensen Jr. underwent his very public sex reassignment surgery, becoming the infamous Christine Jorgensen, one of the first MTF transsexuals to openly discuss her life. Although sexual reassignment surgery has been performed since the 30s, it had always been an underground topic. The whole idea of the psycho-sexual aspects of the person involved and the psychological need to physically change one’s gender in order to feel whole is still as much of an enigma today as then, even in the Gay and Lesbian community.
In Transamerica we are introduced to a MTF pre-op transsexual, Bree. Will she, within the framework of a road trip, family drama, help shed some light on a transgender person’s struggles and triumphs and entertain us?
In the bustling world of Los Angeles, the extremely uptight, Bree Osbourne (played with perfection by Felicity Huffman) has a lot on her plate. Between her elocution lessons, to perfect the female speech tone, she is working two jobs as a dishwasher/waitress in a family-run Mexican restaurant and the humiliating job of a telephone solicitor.
But, Bree knows all of the angry hang-ups and having her hands in suds and hot water have been worth it. In an office visit with her New Age therapist, Margaret (Elizabeth Pena), who is all at once warm, yet tough with her demands of total honesty from Bree, we learn that in a week Bree will have her final operation to complete her male to female transformation. She has been through all the required therapy, has lived 24/7 as a woman, takes her hormones and is more than ready. All she needs is for Margaret to sign the final consent forms and she is set.
A phone call from a New York City jail asking for Stanley Osbourne, the former Bree, notifying her that his son is in need of bail, throws a curve into her plans. She knows it is possible that her one time sexual encounter with a college friend could have produced this son. When Bree informs Margaret of her dilemma and her solution to forget about this call for help, Margaret refuses to sign her final papers until Bree faces, explores and hopefully solve this question of who this boy is in New York.
Bree’s plans are to fly to New York, bail the kid out, escape and go on with her life. When the street hustler, Toby (Kevin Zeger) is released to her custody, he just assumes, from her mannerism and her matronly dress that she is from one of the many Christian rescue organizations that has helps street kids and the frightened Bree never corrects him.
She needs to dump him but he says he has no family (a shocked Bree finds out what happened his mother and her former friend) and will make his way to Hollywood with or without her help. She reluctantly buys an old station wagon from one of Toby’s hustler friends and the they start an adventure that seems to be the one of the time tested ways that two people can really get to know one another: The Road Trip.
Bree has extracted enough information from Toby to know about a possible family member in Kentucky and makes plans to detour to his hometown and dump him. As in all road trip movies and in real life, we find out all about our traveling companions in so many ways that we would rather not. In Kentucky, we find out why Toby has become a male prostitute and a hustler and Bree and Toby, by talking, by being as open as two people with so much to hide can, come to care about each other.
There are many ups and downs on this trip to Los Angeles and an interruption of plans and circumstances lands the pair at a transsexual support group meeting, where Bree is even more uptight than normal. She is not one of these flamboyant types that are represented, she is a lady.
In the most important, unexpected stop the pair are forced to make is in Phoenix, where Bree’s family lives. This is where all masks are removed and Bree has to be honest with Toby and face her former life as Stanley and her new responsibilities as mother. But, there is so much healing that needs to be done, that this wonderful story does not necessary have a happy ending, but a realistic one.
The day comes when Bree realizes her lifelong dream of becoming a woman and this is a day that should be one of the happiest in her life, but has turned out to be one of the saddest. Now, she won’t be whole until she is can connect, on a maternal level with Toby. Stanley may be dead but, Bree has yet to emerge as a whole woman she has yearned to be, but she is determined to keep moving forward, proud, now filled with post-op confidence and maybe that is as happy of an ending any of us can expect.
Forget the Felicity Huffman that you have seen on Desperate Housewives the past two seasons. Her portrayal of Bree, as a transsexual, is dead on. Bree’s struggles to feminize her once male body is very realistic. Director, Duncan Tucker, lights and frames Bree’s face so we are always aware of the heavy makeup that she uses to cover up what was once a very male face. As in real life, to me at least, there always seems to be something a little off or askew about most of the trans I have met, whether it is the heavy makeup, the unnatural female gait, their body shape (even extremely thin women have the curve of hips) and bone structure. There is a great scene, among many in this movie, where Bree is in a roadside restaurant and a little girl is staring at her and like most honest children, she asks if Bree is a boy or a girl. This shocks Bree because she is convinced that all she has done, up to this point, has made her almost indistinguishable from a woman.
But that is just it, Bree has to try too hard at her femininity, which does not come natural and for Felicity Huffman to do this Victor/Victoria-like switch throughout this movie is a true test of her greatness as an actress. I truly believed Huffman as a pre-op trans. The choices that Bree made are some that no woman would, for example, driving across the country in skirts, frilly blouses and jackets, with scarves always draped around her neck and four-inch wedges. Only someone out to prove their femininity would. At first I thought the constant wearing of scarves and turtlenecks by Bree, was to cover up an Adam’s apple that had not been shaved down yet, but, there were times when Bree’s scarf was gone and there was no sign of an Adam’s apple, so I couldn‘t tell if that was an editing mistake or not.
In a touching segment of the road trip, involving Calvin (Graham Greene) who the duo meet in a truck stop when they are down on their luck, gives us hope that despite her reserve, Bree has a sexual charm that can come through and maybe she won’t have to spend her life without love. Calvin, as the wise soul, who has made his share of mistakes, seems just like the kind of man that would be able to get through Bree’s past and see her for the woman she has become.
Although how Bree and Toby end up in Phoenix, broke and having to rely on her estranged family for help, seemed to me contrived and unbelievable and a lazy way to move the plot to this point, we need to understand more of Stanley/Bree’s past and there is no better way to bring out all of our psychological messes than an unexpected family reunion. British actress, Finonnula Flanagan as Bree’s sun-soaked, sometimes hysterical, sometimes rational mother, Elizabeth, performance is nothing short of brilliant, where it could have been the most irritating. As much as I was in Bree’s corner and understood her need for acceptance, I could have nothing but empathy for a mother who felt as if she lost her beloved son.
Burt Young, as Bree’s mostly silent father, Murray, facial expressions and body language helps us realize what it has been like to live and to love the high strung Elizabeth. The fact that Bree’s younger sister, Sidney (Carrie Dreston) is just out of rehab, completes this family’s dysfunctional portrait. And even though Stanley is dead, at least Bree has given her mother something to live for and possibly another life to ruin, a grandson.
This is a movie that could have been dripping in mush and sentimentality, but writer and director Tucker, keeps us grounded in reality. Bree’s life is not the happy one she expected after her surgery because of the hole in her heart that needs to be healed. Toby’s Hollywood dreams of being a Gay porn star is not all that he dreamed of either. They need each other to really start to be whole humans, but, as we see in the last scene with Toby making an hesitant but necessary connection with Bree, his mother, I had the uneasy feeling that the life-long hustler in Toby, may not know how to stop pulling the hustle.