Sunday, March 19, 2006


At the movie house today, most of the people there were going in to see She’s the Man. Even if I ended up watching a movie that was a one-way, one-note road into boredom, which is what I thought Transamerica would be, I was still going to see an academy-award nominated performance by Felicity Huffman. It was no contest.

This movie was made before Felicity Huffman was tapped for Desperate Housewives, and, having learned she had the part, the filmmakers had to hurry to finish it in time.

Huffman plays Bree, a pre-operative, male-to-female transsexual, who has held down two jobs and saves every penny so that she can pay for the operation that will make her a woman. However, one day out of nowhere, she gets a phone call from her son, the result of a clumsy sexual encounter 18 years ago. It seems he’s in jail in New York, and, upon the advice of her therapist, who threatens to withhold her approval of the coveted operation, Bree reluctantly flies to the coast from L.A. to get the boy out of jail, a boy who’s been living on the street and prostituting himself to make ends meet. We know that Bree can’t just leave Toby there, and so he accompanies her to L.A., where her operation awaits her and where he thinks stardom awaits him. It only makes sense that she invites him along when we realize that she’s hoping to reconnect him with his stepfather. Once, however, she realizes after their meeting that the boy was brutalized as well as sexually abused by his stepfather, she agrees that they’re on this journey together.

This is not just a journey where Bree tries to get to know her son, but one where she tries to find meaning in her life. As focused as she is on this one thing that will make her happy, it’s hard for her to see anything else or anyone else around her. While she starts out thinking this boy is a big mistake in her life as a man, he becomes something more. But, more than just Bree’s journey, this is Toby’s journey as well. He’s scrapping to stay alive, he’s been fed lies all his life and doesn’t react well when he realizes that Bree hasn’t told him the truth. They’re both freaks in a world that is ice-hard.

There are some real challenges in handling such subject matter, and handling it on a road trip. We have to believe that this actor in front of us is a man-turning-into-a-woman. We have to believe that she’s fragile enough to have walls around her, and yet fragile enough to allow someone in, and we have to learn to care about her. But most importantly, we have to believe that on this short road trip, the two –- father and son –- develop a respect for one another and a genuine affection. The latter, of course, is the most challenging. And this movie achieves all of that with a smart screenplay, absolutely clever dialogue, and situations that are not predictable but that feed the story and the relationship.

The humor is so right-on, and illustrates more than anything could where these characters are.

Doctor: How do you feel about your penis?
Bree: It disgusts me. I don’t even like looking at it.
Doctor: And how about your friends?
Bree: They don’t like it either.

Huffman is amazing, from her cheekbones to the tonal quality of her voice. Like transsexuals I have met in the beginning of their transformation, she exaggerates feminine movements, but doesn’t make them clown-like. And we do begin to care about her, care what happens to her and how she handles it, all through Huffman's deft characterization. But it’s not just Huffman. I mentioned the screenplay and the dialogue, which are stellar, but the supporting actors are also very true, very watchable. Kevin Zegers, who plays her son, resembles a young Brad Pitt from “Thelma and Louise” when you first see him, but his movements are less exaggerated and more honest. Fionnula Flanagan, a character actress who’s been in movies for so many years, shines when she discovers that her disgusting son is still alive but – gasp! – she has a grandson!

What doesn’t work about this movie? Perhaps the idea that a psychologist would withhold approval for an operation because of one small detail, and insist that her patient meet her son in what seems an emotionally dangerous way. But that’s quibbling.

This is a wonderful movie about relationships, about their journey separately and together, and is brutally honest about people and motivation. And I'm just guessing that any Academy members who voted for Reese Witherspoon for Best Actress didn't see Huffman's performance in Transamerica. Thumb's up.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


A virus has laid me low this week, and I have seized the opportunity to watch some movies. As a public service, I have stayed out of the theaters, but I've seen some great stuff here at home.

First on my list was Notorious, a film I'd read about and never seen. It is a thing of Hitchcockian beauty, a film-noir romance in elegant black and white. The sets are exotic: postwar Miami, postwar Rio. Ingrid Bergman plays a tortured soul, American daughter of a Nazi, a woman with a blighted reputation, recruited by the Feds to spy on old family friends. Cary Grant plays a role with hard, hard edges: a spy who is not above beating a woman to get his point across, incapable of saying that he loves her. Claude Rains plays Sebastian, and if I tell you too much about him, I'll spoil the movie for you.

Hitchcock draws us in with seductive camera work, luring us into the minds of his characters. As much is said with the camera as is said with dialogue, and the dialogue is elegant too: every word carrying double and triple freight.

You can look anywhere on the web if you want spoilers: I'm not going to go there. Seeing this movie "blind" as I did was a pleasure I hope you will have as well. My recommendation is thumb's up, and don't bother with the multiplex: there's nothing there this week to compare to this.