"Transamerica": Revealing body part that matters most: the heart

Felicity Huffman's performance in "Transamerica," as a pre-op male-to-female transsexual coping with the sudden emergence of a long-lost son, is much better than the movie it's in; indeed, she singlehandedly takes "Transamerica" to a higher plane. Duncan Tucker wrote and directed the film, whose action mostly takes place during a cross-country road trip. Bree (Huffman) flies to New York to meet Toby (Kevin Zegers), the street-hustler son she didn't know existed, and agrees to drive him back to California with her. He doesn't know she's his parent (she's pretending to be a missionary worker) or that she's not technically a she, but during the trip, secrets emerge.

Tucker's clearly made his film with the best of intentions, and there's a sympathy for his heroine and for all transgendered people (we meet many of them at a committee meeting attended by a bewildered Toby) that reverberates throughout the film. But sympathy isn't enough, and "Transamerica" falls short on story.

Part of the reason "Brokeback Mountain," another film featuring characters who represent a sexual minority, works so well is because it focuses on its characters as individuals, rather than on the larger issues they represent. "Transamerica" often seems to be about educating its audience on the issues facing the transgender community, rather than about Bree and Toby. It's a worthy public service but often fails as drama. And Tucker stacks the deck by making Bree's birth family so over-the-top and horrendous (her uptight mother shrieks when a dog licks his genitalia), we never quite believe that they're real.

And so the film comes down to Huffman, who has a challenging role and an inconsistent screenplay that doesn't help her much. (Tucker, needing an excuse to show us Bree without her makeup, clumsily maneuvers the story to have Bree lose her purse, after he's gone to some trouble to establish that she's the kind of woman who'd never let go of it.) At first, her performance is odd and a bit off-putting. Bree speaks in a breathy voice that sounds as if it's being played on the wrong speed, intoning from someplace far down in her throat, and her lines all seem carefully rehearsed.

But it's not the actress who sounds rehearsed, it's the character, and it's such a subtle touch it takes a little while to pick up. Bree, frightened of how the world will perceive her, wants to present the best possible face, from her clumsy makeup to her too-precise diction. She wraps herself in the trappings of femininity, dressing in pink and purple outfits accessorized by loopy scarves, asking a salesman at a sporting-goods store if he has a sleeping bag that's "a trifle less butch." (She buys a pink one.)

Bree is putting on a performance, just as Huffman is — a woman playing a man who's almost a woman, but not quite. Watching the actress, you forget her lovably sloppy Lynette on "Desperate Housewives"; this Bree is a tough, quiet survivor, and she carries us through the problems in "Transamerica." You can't take your eyes off her, even as Bree shrinks from the camera; this heroine would just as soon not be watched, for fear of being truly seen.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 2.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Transamerica," with Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers, Fionnula Flanagan, Elizabeth Pea, Graham Greene, Burt Young, Carrie Preston. Written and directed by Duncan Tucker. 103 minutes. Rated R for sexual content, nudity, language and drug use. Pacific Place.