Transamerica (15)

Girls who do boys, who do girls
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Staggering along the road in a high-collared pink frock, holding on to her hat for dear life, Bree (Felicity Huffman, Lynette from Desperate Housewives) looks for all the world like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown - or like an under-confident drag act. The reality is more complicated. Pedro Almodóvar's 1987 film The Law of Desire played a dizzying game with sexual ambivalence, casting a woman (Carmen Maura) as the hero's transsexual former brother. Duncan Tucker's comedy Transamerica adds a further twist, casting Huffman as a pre-op transsexual: Bree, née Stanley, is taking hormone medication and training himself to "pass" as a woman, but hasn't yet had the operation that will make him - to use a favourite Almodóvar word - "authentic".

Transamerica is a transgender variation on that American staple, the road movie as quest for (pardon the term) closure. Before she can be 100-per-cent Bree, the erstwhile Stanley must come to terms with her past and her residual traces of maleness. Suddenly she hears of a teenage son, whom Stanley fathered as a result of his one experience with a woman (which he didn't think counted, "the whole thing was so tragically lesbian"). This progeny turns out to be Toby (Kevin Zegers), a sullen, drugged-up rent boy who can't understand why this apparition is standing him bail. Reluctant to tell him the truth, Bree poses as a missionary - from "the Chuch of the Potential Father" - and takes Toby on a journey that doesn't, at first sight, hold out great prospects for the customary hugs-and-insights redemption.

If you're looking for provocation at all costs, you might see Transamerica as good-natured picaresque that's never as outrageous as it might have been. But consider it a mischievous tampering with that staid American genre, the family reconciliation comedy, and you have to admit Transamerica is bracingly outré - even Ortonesque.

Admittedly it presses a few conventional buttons: Toby, we're hardly surprised to discover, was abused by his stepfather, a sleazy small-town greybeard. And there's a touching but faintly cosy quality to Bree's encounter with a warm-hearted Native American farmer, Calvin Many Goats (Graham Greene), who instantly sees the real woman in her. At times, you feel that Transamerica works a little hard on its cultural remit to remind us that there are other Americas, ethnic and sexual, that deserve road-movie exposure just as much as the menopausal white males of Sideways.

But the film's sharpest move is to make Bree not the embodiment of joyous subversion that queer-comedy convention might dictate, but an anxious figure hampered by a sort of hyper-normality. Stopping off to visit a transsexual friend, Bree recoils at the proud boisterousness of the guests, including two female lovers who used to be heterosexual men, and a woman who "couldn't pass on a dark night" but turns out to be a "GG" - a Genuine Girl. This itself is a sly joke on the demeanor of Bree who, while literally a woman - insofar as she's played by one - doesn't remotely convince as one for most of the film.

Transamerica finds its focus when the travellers visit Bree's family: domineering Catholic mother (Fionnula Flanagan), weary Jewish father (Burt Young), recovering alcoholic sister (a winning performance by Carrie Preston). But Bree points out that, however much her parents screwed Stanley up, her background is not - as we might lazily assume - the cause of her condition. Gender dysmorphia is genetic, Bree explains; "Don't try to blame your father and me," her mother bristles. As cinematic problem families go, this one's a corker, and Flanagan's cloying but ferociously oppressive matriarch is one for the annals.

Crammed with acidic one-liners, Tucker's witty script makes remarkably sustained play on the unresolved question of Bree's/Stanley's gender: mistaking Toby for Bree's toy boy, her sister marvels, "You lucky son of a... I mean, you lucky bitch." Transamerica is very much a linguistic comedy. Bree handles words as if with tweezers, talking a stilted, absurdly lady-like salon-speak: "How much do you make per... assignation?" she asks Toby about his hustling. But words are just part of the overall language that Bree struggles to adopt. She describes her body as a "work in progress", but it's hard to shake off the body language of a lifetime. Maleness re-emerges in moments of crisis, as in a fumbled attempt to piss on a highway: in what must be counted the film's farcical money shot, we get a brief jaw-dropping flash of Huffman with a prosthetic penis. Gradually, though, Bree's theatrical gestures evolve into something like a second-nature grace: when Calvin serenades her with "Beautiful Dreamer", this potentially mawkish moment is saved by Huffman's eloquently bashful flutters of head and hand.

The conceit - a woman playing a man about to become a woman - could have resulted in mere novelty, but Tucker's assured execution will no doubt make Transamerica a prime reference to drop at academic conferences on gender and performance. But is Huffman doing anything more than her near-namesake did in the straight drag comedy Tootsie? Definitely - Transamerica is a riposte to that film. Where the Dustin Hoffman vehicle portrayed femaleness as a simple routine that can be pulled off with insouciance by a virtuoso male actor, Felicity Huffman's magnificently tense performance proposes that it's a serious stretch of physical and psychological practice for a man to become a woman - even if the man is actually a woman in the first place.