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‘Transamerica’ is a journey well worth taking

Felicity Huffman gives a brilliant performance as a pre-op transsexual
/ Source: The Associated Press

A pre-op transsexual goes on a cross-country road trip with the teenage hustler son he never knew he had. Or would that be she?

It sounds like a bad soap-opera premise. But in the hands of “Transamerica” star Felicity Huffman, this potentially melodramatic idea produces a film that’s funny, poignant and remarkably grounded in reality.

A recent Emmy winner for playing one of the Wisteria Lane women on “Desperate Housewives,” Huffman is completely unrecognizable as the uber-girlie Bree (who’s technically still a man named Stanley), a transformation she achieved not just through makeup, hair and clothing, but from the inside out.

Yes, the film’s creative team gets the aesthetic elements right in depicting what it’s like when a man pretends to be a woman — or in this case, when a woman acts like a man pretending to be a woman. Bree applies her makeup in bold smudges, and hasn’t found quite the right shades for her skin tone. Her wardrobe consists of pinks and polyesters, which would make her an ideal Mary Kay saleswoman. And when she tries to sashay gracefully, her walk comes off as a jerky stomp.

But it’s what Huffman does internally — the sadness and the subtlety beneath the awkward exterior — that makes her so enormously believable. It helps greatly that writer-director Duncan Tucker, in his impressive feature film debut, has created a character who’s not a freak or a stereotype, just a lonely, alienated person trying to establish an identity and find a little happiness.

Bree is clearly brilliant but aimless, having hopped between college courses and jobs before settling on telemarketing and part-time waitressing to save money for her operation. For someone whose lifestyle would be considered far outside the mainstream, she’s surprisingly conservative and proper, which is an inventive twist.

She’s appalled to find out not only that she has a son from a fleeting heterosexual encounter long ago, but that he’s a junkie and a street hustler — with atrocious grammar. (“You don’t have to say ‘like,”’ she scolds him for peppering his speech with slang. “‘Probably disemboweled by a ninja’ will suffice.”)

She’s only a week away from her surgery when she flies from California to New York (urged by her therapist, played by Elizabeth Pena) to meet Toby (Kevin Zegers), who’s just been arrested and has placed a call for help to the person he believes is his father. Posing as a church missionary to hide her identity, she agrees to drive him back to Los Angeles, where he has dreams of starring in X-rated movies. She has dreams, meanwhile, of dropping him off with a relative somewhere along the way.

The road-trip premise is a cliche in itself, and Tucker gives in to all its conventions: a beat-up station wagon, two-lane back roads (no one in road-trip movies ever takes the highway), run-down gas stations and folksy diners. They encounter unscrupulous strangers and unexpected kindnesses (Graham Greene adds sweetness and warmth in just a few scenes).

And, most importantly, they get to know each other, which is inevitable when you’re stuck in a car with someone for days at a time.

Zegers, who looks and sounds like a young Leonardo DiCaprio with his tousled hair and wiry frame, finds a natural banter with Huffman as their characters feel each other out and fail to tell each other the whole truth. Fionnula Flanagan, Burt Young and Carrie Preston provide comic relief as Bree’s disapproving family, just as the story reaches its most intense point in Phoenix.

Of course, Toby and Bree will both be better off by the end of their travels, but this is one of those instances in which the journey truly is the destination.