(Duncan Tucker, USA, 2005)


"Beauty is relative," remarks Toby (Kevin Zegers), a teenage hustler. "Not my relatives!" replies Bree (Felicity Huffman), formerly Stanley, who is en route to a sex-change operation. Toby takes the droll crack in his stride, but he has yet to learn what the audience has been told at the start of Transamerica: that Bree is, in fact, Toby's father. Like many a drama that rests upon a single, crucial lie, the entire film builds to the agonising moment when Bree has to fess up, or repress the truth indefinitely.

Transamerica did not hail from the workshops of Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, but it has the wearily familiar Sundance ethos plastered all over it. It combines a story about the need for tolerating "difference" with a road movie format (hence the twee double meaning of the title). Like the overrated Sideways (2004), to which the publicity eagerly compares it, it uses a "mosaic of American life" structure to convey some fairly reprehensible middle-class disgust towards the "ordinary hicks" found at roadstops along the way.

Writer-director Duncan Tucker, who has previously only made the short The Mountain King six years ago, has trouble finding a rhythm and a style to bring this material alive. It mainly plays like a bland tele-drama. Some details of characterisation, however, hit their mark: Bree's over-cultivated code of feminine good manners, for instance, is enjoyably conveyed by Huffman. Much of the business surrounding Toby – who seems like a runaway from a Miguel Arteta film such as Star Maps (1997) – rings far less truthfully.

The same goes for Tucker's treatment of family life. Irish actor Fionnula Flanagan, following in the Hollywood footsteps of Brenda Blethyn, plays Bree's shrill, insensitive mother. At first, she comes across as an unholy amalgam of Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People (1980) and Anjelica Huston in Buffalo 66 (1998) – in other words, a handy canvas onto which the filmmaker can project his seeming loathing of "straight family values". Fortunately, Burt Young as Murray, her good-natured husband, provides a much-needed point of empathy.

© Adrian Martin February 2006

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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