“This is the voice,” says Bree (Felicity Huffman), practicing her woman’s pitch. As if to do battle with the world, she prepares carefully before heading out the door, ensuring that her body is properly contained, her nails appropriately pink, her lipstick perfectly blushy. If she’s not precisely the image on her Glamour magazine, she’s as close as most mortal women might be. Bree means to make the case to her therapist Margaret (Elizabeth Peña), that she’s ready for surgery: her year in transition is nearly done, her hormones are aligned, and it’s time. “This is the voice.”
Or, maybe not. Sitting in Margaret’s office at the start of Transamerica, Bree admits in a gush that well, she’s had a phone call raising the wee problem of the son she fathered when she was Stanley, and much as she wants to put that self behind her, Margaret insists that integrate. “Stanley’s life is your life,” she smiles, soothing. “This is a part of your body that cannot be discarded.”
This is the sort of language that makes gender so perplexing and so rigid at the same time. What does it have to do with bodies, lives, and names? How can it determine who you are, or at least how others see you, which amounts to much the same thing if you’re inclined to want approval or feel desired or even just to get along. And so Bree must face that past she thought was over, in the form of a 17-year-old Calvin-Klein-model-boy named Toby (Kevin Zegers). She heads to NYC to bail him out of “downtown lockup, where he’s residing since he tried to shoplift a frog. Yes, the child is looking for help, and Bree pretends to be a Christian missionary, doing good work under the auspices of the Church of the Potential Father.
The fact that Bree is not only determined and focused but also rather clever, often at her own expense (or at least, at an expense that you get because you know her dilemma and Toby does not) makes her endearing. It also makes you wonder about the series of decisions she makes in order that the film earns its cutesy title—she and Toby end up driving cross country, getting to know one another and meeting each other’s families in order to find themselves.
First stop: Kentucky, where Toby’s redneck stepfather lives in a trailer, apparently so stuck in his stereotype that he can’t keep his hands off Toby even for an evening. Horrified that her son has been so ill-treated as a youngster, and considering that this may explain his current cockiness and half-assed hustling. It also means that their journey will continue, as Bree can’t leave Toby in Kentucky, having witnessed this horror. And so, because Bree can’t bring confess her actual relationship to Toby and he’s not inclined to take advice from a church lady, they ride along encased in a kind of dull tension, ever on the edge of revelation, yet hanging back… because the movie must go on for another hour or so.
The episodic structure of Transamerica isn’t so tedious as its gentle pokes at conventions as a means to make Bree’s situation both affecting and palatable for an imagined mainstreamy audience. This means that the conflict between parent and child must accommodate or reflect the sorts of anxieties that such viewers recognize and smile at, tiffs that don’t quite reach crisis points, but instead allow the free-to-be-you-and-me vibe to permeate the film. Toby announces, in an effort to impress his kind driver, to give up hustling because, he says, “It’s degradable.” Bree can’t help herself, and corrects him: “Degrading.” So now you know, in case you missed it the first five times, that Bree’s a stickler and Toby now has a mission, to trouble her sense of order just enough to assert himself and disrupt her seeming security.
Or so he thinks. They’re headed for an inevitable collision, occasioned by a loss of funds and Bree’s decision to bring Toby to her parents’ pink and beige home in Phoenix, where her parents, Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan) and Murray (Burt Young), revisit their discomfort with her “change.” As Bree’s car has long since died, they hitch a ride with the kindhearted Calvin Two Goats (Graham Greene), who takes a liking to Bree. The movie supposes that Calvin doesn’t “know” her secret. By this time Toby has discovered she has a penis, having spotted it while she relieved herself during a roadside pause, rather carelessly, given all the concern she’s displayed about hiding the details of her anatomy. And so Toby is unnerved that Calvin might find Bree attractive, as the “deception,” as he sees it, replicates the one he endured.
At the same time, however, the film doesn’t allow for much identification on Toby’s part. He leans heavily on his little-boy-lost affect, going so far as to lay himself out on a bed and attempt to seduce Bree—his thanks for her kindness and generosity. In his mind—perhaps—he’s hear playing gay boy, girlish boy, and maybe even studly boy, all at once, laid across the bed with pouty lips poofed out and eyes come-hithering from beneath his stringy bangs. That the movie can’t explore or even spend much time on this particular transgression—incestuous desire, ambiguously gendered to boot—exposes a distressing lack of nerve. The pain and betrayal can only lead to forgiveness, Lifetime-style.
More compellingly, the film’s resistance to grappling with the interrelations of gender and sex suggests an investment in artifice, which is not in itself a problem (gender being a lifelong series of performative gestures, as in “the voice” Bree works to perfect). And yet Transamerica stops short, settles for the familiar “alternative family” rather than questioning all those systems of assessment and measurements of morality that make the very concept of “alternative” necessary.