In 2005 when Transamerica hit the screens, trans visibility and acceptability were at least a decade away and the understanding by the general public about people who are transgender was still hovering around zero; the film tells the story of a conservative transgender [transsexual at the time] woman named Bree, only a week from her “operation,” whose life is turned upside down by the discovery that she has a son named Toby.
Bree, played by Felicity Huffman, can’t escape her past when she finds out the very awkward one-night stand in college produced a son, now a hustler on the streets of New York City. Oddly, Bree’s therapist will not sign off on her having her “procedure” until Bree confronts her son and her past. Bree, who lives in Los Angeles is now forced to road trip it to NYC to pick up her son, and bring him back to L.A. while concealing her identity.
Under the pretense of a Christian outreach member who works for the “Church of the Potential Father,” Bree and Toby hit the road back to Los Angeles while along the way, Bree visits her sister and parents and participates in some harmless flirtation with a stranger she meets in Texas.
Debut writer and director Duncan Tucker spends a little too much time hammering home the fact that Bree is transgender with what seem like unnecessary scenes and lines. “After the operation, I will be a woman,” Bree says looking into the mirror and a decade ago, that may have been the belief or even general consensus among the medical establishment, so time has worn away at the illusion that surgeries create men and women and it has given way to the understanding that the trans spectrum runs wide and deep.
Huffman, having been nominated for an academy award for Best Actress for the part, seemed to bring an understanding of the part – possibly a level of empathy – that hadn’t been seen in previous movies that used cisgender actors to play Trans roles.
It would be almost a decade before I came out as transgender, but having slinked into a late night showing of this movie in 2005, I remember having a level of awe and wonderment, both positive and negative. Character set up was typical, but Huffman’s voice, a woman trying to sound like a man trying to sound like a woman, felt uncomfortable. Even watching the film a decade later, there is this forced attempt to sound Trans as opposed to being Trans.
Is this Felicities fault, the quick answer is no as it appears that the writer/director spent a lot of time trying to focus on Bree’s character being “different” while wanting her to be “normal. According to multiple sources, the screenplay was inspired by a conversation between the director Duncan Tucker and his roommate at the time Katherine Connella, who wrote an autobiography called, “Sugar and Spice and Puppy Dog Tails: Growing Up Intersexed in 2000.”
As the road trip continues, the story unfolds and Toby realizes that Bree is not your “typical” woman. In one scene, Bree pulls the car to the side of the road to relieve herself while Toby looks through the rear-view mirror. It was an uncomfortable scene to watch Huffman’s character try to manage a prosthetic penis wile squatting; I didn’t feel the connection with the character mostly because I, even all those years pre-transition, had never stood up while urinating – another character flaw that didn’t go unnoticed.
Transamerica still resonates today however, Toby has a penchant for saying the word “dudes” at the end of his sentences, Bree mutters under her breath, “Wish you would stop calling me dude.” A request we have all asked or wished for from our friends and family.
During a stop in Arizona to see her parents, Bree’s mother leans in to give her a hug, but makes a sudden grab for her crotch and says, ““Thank God, he’s still a boy!” At first, it seemed unusual, but post transition, I’ve found that the scenario is not that farfetched. Those without passing privilege soon realize that their genitals are the center of everyone’s conversation, even their families, so the scene still resonates with many of us today.
Bree fusses with her make-up – and even forgets her makeup bag and panics – she dotes on her son by correcting his grammar and teaching him some manners. She works two jobs to save up for her “operation” and does very little dating; qualities you will not only find in people that are transgender, but everyone, and that’s what really puts this movie at the top of my list.
Tropes in the movie are forgivable due to the time period and, like all cisgender writers who try to write Trans scripts about a life or community that refuses to hear our voices, the film is going to suffer in places and focus on stereotypes. Transamerica is no exception to that rule, but it still continues to be in the top 10 list of “must see” transgender movies and it was given a GLAAD Media award in 2005 for Outstanding Film, Limited Release.
Bree was, and still is, an identifiable character in a movie that has aged well; credit for this lands solely in the lap of Felicity Huffman for her ability to turn a potentially clown-like depiction of a Trans woman into a loving mother doing the right thing for her son. I walked out of the theater that night with the same level of confusion I had always had about my gender, but armed with a little more knowledge that I was not alone and that someone was trying to tell my story.