Video Vault: ‘Transamerica’

Beyond Brokeback: The Weirder the Better?

“Transamerica”
2005 – Duncan Tucker
Rated R: 103 minutes
Vault Rating: 7.5

The best movie on the new release wall is far and away “Transamerica.”

I had just about had enough of the alternative cinema of late, notwithstanding the superior “Brokeback Mountain” (Vault Rating: 8.5), which, in Vault’s opinion, was the rightful best picture last year.

On a poorly chosen whim, I had recently suffered through “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” which, outside a couple pretty good rock-and-roll songs, was just way too over the top for me. Then along comes “Transamerica,” a road movie about a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual who finds out he has a son.

Believe me, I was wary. But the critical buzz on the film, which emerged from the pack at the Tribecca Film Festival last year, was almost universal. Still, I had my doubts. Having just completed a first viewing, Vault is here to recommend it heartily as this week’s choice pick.

It is a comedy, depending on the delicacy of your humor, that leans heavily on a very well-crafted script by writer/director Duncan Tucker and serious drama.

The film’s opening is that of a nicely bodied woman getting dressed in the morning. Silk stockings, makeup, hair … the works. Until the camera pulls back for the shocker. From the neck up, Stanley, who goes by Bree Osbourne throughout, is the single ugliest woman on earth.

This will ruin it for you if you’ve not heard anything about the film, but Felicity Huffman – of “Desperate Housewives” fame and a serious looker – was nominated for best actress by Oscar this year for her role in this movie. Otherwise, one would think Stanley was indeed a man. Why, oh why, does Oscar only nominate beautiful women after they take on really rough looking characters?

Am I off topic? OK, OK.

Bree (Stanley) is found undergoing a process by which she can legally get a sex change operation. This is not as simple as just electing surgery. She’s (I believe the P.C. nomenclature for Stanley/Bree is “she” and “Bree,” so we’re going with that, mmkay?) undergoing psychotherapy because she needs a clinical say so on a form.

“Gender dysforia,” says the psychiatrist, “Is regarded as a very serious mental disorder.”

“Don’t you find it odd that plastic surgery can cure a mental disorder?” she replies.

Bree’s elegant and wry sense of humor informs almost every aspect of this film. Her character uses it as a defense mechanism and her voice, which had to be extremely difficult to get, gives a deadpan that serves the wit really well.

At just about the time when everything is set for the happiest day of Bree’s life … a day which would make most men shudder … a complication arises in the form of a phone call from the New York State Corrections system. They ask for her alter ego.

“Stanley Shoepack no longer lives here,” says Bree. “What do you want?”

The call turns out to be an effort at parental notification where a 17-year-old juvenile street hustler has been arrested and jailed. Stunned as anyone would be to learn they have a 17-year-old son, Bree now has encountered a serious hurdle to her quest for biological womanhood. With only a week before V-Day, she has got a parental responsibility thrust upon her.

She is compelled to travel from L.A. to N.Y.C. and springs her son, posing as a church social worker. From this point on, what you get is one of those old fashioned “buddy” or “road pictures” where the two protagonists slowly learn about themselves and each other.

Director Tucker uses the road trip to expose more about Bree and Toby (Kevin Zeggers) as they take side trips to their respective home towns in Texas and Kentucky. Both visits are wildly illuminating, oftentimes horrifically unsettling and often bracingly funny. The end result, though, at every crazy turn, is the exposition of very full, understandable, real people.

A good way for you to judge for yourself is to ask yourself how you feel about Bree at the outset and at the conclusion of this film. If you’re like me, you’ll see her as a freak early, but that feeling curiously vanishes early on. By the end you may find yourself moved.

In closing, a word about this type of cinema. I find it curious that a film like “Transamerica” is easier to talk about or pick up off the shelves and rent than “Brokeback Mountain” is. I have heard that many who rented Brokeback felt the odd compulsion to explain themselves at the checkout counter.

I suppose the reasoning is in the same vein that makes a song like Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” or a movie like “Some Like It Hot” acceptable. Transsexuals, or even transvestites (Go ahead, mail it in to the vault what the difference is, I dare you!) like Tim Curry’s character from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (Somebody remind me to tell you about the time I took my 96 year old grandmother to that one!) are funny, or, maybe less challenging to the current social mores than are simple gay males.

I find it odd that something ostensibly weirder is safer to rent than a simple story exploring gay themes. I’m not suggesting anyone rent Brokeback if they find the topic offensive. Certainly I found the film quite a challenge and I think I’m more open-minded than most. But the point is, if you strip away prejudice, what remains in both films’ cases, is nothing short of excellence.

Hey! You’re welcome. And so are your comments. You can drop a line to the Video Vault at videovault@gantdaily.com and we’ll print your comments in the regular VaultMail feature. Meanwhile, here are some of the other offerings that will be sprouting up on the new release racks this week:

Cheaper by the Dozen 2 : Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt return as heads of the Baker family who, while on vacation, find themselves in competition with a rival family of eight children, headed by Eugene Levy. (2005 – Rated PG – family / comedy)

The Blue Butterfly: The story of a terminally ill boy whose dream is to catch the most beautiful butterfly in the world. William Hurt stars as an entomologist who takes them on a trip to the jungle that will transform their lives. Based on a true story. (2004 – Rated PG – Drama / Adventure)

Motor Home Massacre : Seven young friends climb aboard a vintage RV headed for a fun-filled weekend in the woods when they encounter a night vision goggled, machete-wielding psychopath. (2005 – Rated R – Horror)

Hollow Man 2: A Seattle detective and a biologist are on the run from a dangerous invisible assassin gone rogue. (2006 – Rated R – Sci-Fi/ Horror)
All You’ve Got : Four privileged female volleyball players transfer to the barrio high school of rivals when their private campus burns down. (2006 – PG-13 – Drama / Sport)

BloodRayne: In a goth 1700s Romania, a half-human, half-vampire strives to avenge her mother’s rape at the hands of a powerful vampire. (2005 – Rated R – Horror)

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