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Transamerica

by Pamela Cole

Atlanta, GA, Nov. 17, 2005—Duncan Tucker makes us all look like fools.


Tucker at the Out On Film opening night preview of Transamerica

In his first feature film, with no formal training as a filmmaker, Tucker has created Transamerica, a road trip story with just enough of a twist to make it seem like one of the last original ideas. The film opened the 2005 Out on Film Festival in Atlanta on Nov. 17, 2005, where a packed crowd at Landmark Midtown vied for parking and rummaged through major gift bags, courtesy of Sundance. (Yeah, you missed it.) All for the privilege of sitting through Transamerica while in-attendance writer/director Tucker made all us would-be filmmakers look like fools. Tucker, who was courteous enough to give a Q&A session after the film, seems as astonished as anyone by the success of Transamerica.

"I don't know anything about making films," he said seriously. "I couldn't tell you about the lenses used or the film stock or any of that. I just felt I knew how to tell a story." And how to write a script, as it turns out. The lead character's performance by Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives as "Bree," a pre-op male-to-female transsexual, is already generating Oscar buzz, even though the film won't be theatrically released until December 23, 2005 (by Miramax, no less). When Huffman's husband, actor William H. Macy, asked Tucker if he could do anything to help after previewing a rough cut of the offbeat indie, Tucker mumbled, "Gee, I don't know." Luckily, Tucker was surrounded by people who knew enough to choose the right lenses and rush in to accept Macy's offer of assistance. Macy subsequently became executive producer.

The result is a truly screen-worthy film about a subject that has been little mentioned onscreen in this age of sexual relevance. Oh, Hollywood's released a few drag queens and flaming queer characters in recent years (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything both come to mind). But here is a rare story about a transsexual transition told from a transsexual's point of view, a subject that is little understood even in the gay-lesbian-bisexual community.

"I met a woman who, after a few months, told me what was under her dress --and it was not what I thought it was going to be," said Tucker, describing how he stumbled upon the topic of transsexualism. However, Tucker swears the movie is ultimately about families and "celebrates our similarities more than our differences." The film follows Bree on her transamerican journey, as she flies to New York from Los Angeles just days before her final surgical transition, to bail a street kid out of jail (who could be her son, conceived in her only sexual soiree with a woman, an event Bree deemed "too tragically lesbian" to count). The return trip by car with said street kid in tow (ala Rainman) is where the fun begins. Though the script has a few unbelievable points necessary to carry the story (Bree inexplicably gives up too much control to Toby, the street kid), we quickly get past those points and accept them. Tucker compares the adventure to Lord of the Rings.

"Frodo and Sam have to make this terrific journey to get rid of something that neither of them wants," he said comparing the cursed ring to Bree's penis. She has to get back to Los Angeles in time for the surgery or wait another year and endure all the hormonal and psychological preparation again. Apparently, there's a long waiting list for this type of surgical exchange.

At times lush with imagery shot by DP Stephen Kazmierski, the film's dialog is snappy and very funny, delivered by Huffman without the campy attitude of many gay characters and painfully humble in its honesty. Huffman elicits our sympathy in one of the very first scenes as she desperately tries to convince a psychiatrist that she is happy, by saying repeatedly, "Yes, I am a happy person… a happy person. A very happy person." All the while, her face exudes the despair she feels as a woman with male anatomy.

When Bree breaks down in tears near the end of the film, saliva pours from her mouth as she sobs in a way that is both disgusting and recognizable. Anyone who has ever truly cried his heart out forgives Felicity for this onscreen mess, and aches with her. Huffman's performance as a woman portraying a man pretending to be a woman is just rich with gender tension, as Bree struggles to become comfortable in the world and in her new skin.

We witness both the vulnerability and the metamorphosis, watching carefully for every inflection, every signification that might betray Huffman. I found myself bouncing back and forth in my mind about the possibilities of male and female performance, questioning the meaning of gender in every scene. Sitting alone in a café booth, Bree drinks her coffee, pointedly pointing her pinky straight up at the ceiling as she takes delicate sips in her imagined feminized way of being in the world. "Take that," the pinky seems to be saying, "I'm not a gay man, I'm not a woman--I am an uber-woman!"

And with that, we are imbued with some understanding of the turmoil that transsexuals endure in their bodies. "How could they do that to themselves!" we shriek, thinking of the drastic surgical resort some take. TransAmerica calmly answers that question in detail, turning it into the existential question we all ask ourselveswho am I?

 

 

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