We popcorn-chomping hitchhikers never know who will pick us up on the roadside. In Flirting with Disaster, it was a neurotic Manhattan adoptee on a nationwide search for his biological parents. The desert-parched heroines of Thelma & Louise brought us along as they raised hell en route to their doom. In Sideways, we toured Napa and Sonoma with a pair of dysfunctional wine-swillers. Bill Murray, the dour old playboy of Broken Flowers, helped us into the car before revisiting old flames in search of an unknown son. OK. Enough. There's no use recounting Bob Hope's comic travelogues, the dark driftings of the In Cold Blood killers, or the desperadoes who (twice) trucked nitro through the jungles of hell.
Still, moviegoers seized by the old wanderlust may want to have a look at Transamerica not least for the fetching peculiarities of its road warriors. Locked together in a battered, puke-green station wagon with 230,000 miles on the odometer, Bree and Toby make for the oddest traveling companions since selfish Charlie Babbitt snatched Rain Man from the asylum. She, which is to say Bree Osbourne, is an overeducated, underachieving Angelino on the verge of what 21st-century medical science calls "sexual-reassignment surgery." He (played by a handsome, versatile kid named Kevin Zegers) is a brooding seventeen-year-old gay prostitute runaway, the previously unknown product of what Bree calls her "tragically lesbian encounter" with a woman. Bree, you see, used to be one Stanley Schupak, late of Phoenix, Arizona before the recognition-of-true-self and the bottled hormones and the pink-lacquered nails. Dad/mom Bree and confused son Toby are destined to travel together from New York to Phoenix every mile of the journey mired in emollient lies, crushing self-doubts and the occasional gender-bending belly laugh. To say it bluntly, this is an often ungainly collision of true feeling and farce. But let's not go too hard on the maker, first-time writer-director Duncan Tucker, or on his players. In the end, only an ogre would fail to love the movie's two imperfect strivers the former "dad" in midlife transition and boy just now finding himself.
Thank heaven and the depilatory arts for Felicity Huffman, a cavorting stalwart of TV's Desperate Housewives. Deploying an angular horse face, an androgynous contralto and the caricatured phoniness of a high-toned schoolmarm, Huffman gives a Hoffman-topping performance: the self-conscious sashays and actorish application of mascara in Tootsie have nothing on Felicity's brave, hard work here. "I try to blend in, keep a low profile," her uncertain trans-American reports; but when an observant eight-year-old in a diner asks Bree/Stanley where she's at in the genitals department, she's comically devastated. Filmmaker Tucker may not have his hand firmly on the switch in terms of dramatic logic (for one thing, can streetwise Toby really be this much of a dolt when it comes to identity stealth?), but there's something so real and touching in Bree's yearning for selfhood, and in her attempts to connect with her son, that we cannot but marvel at Huffman's skill. Lovely Charlize Theron, inflated to 200 snarling pounds, or with mine soot on her face, represents one kind of transformation; Huffman, in the agony of he-struggling-to-become-she, is quite another. I don't know what kind of casting call Tucker put out before choosing his star (Men? Women? Others?), but no one can fault him now: The sexual mix-and-match that drives Transamerica has authentic heart.
As for road-movie conventions, you won't find much new here, aside from the gender-joke and gender-trauma elements. We visit the lost son's scrappy hometown (a psychosexual disaster involving an abusive father), put up for the night in Texas with a houseful of fellow transsexuals (intermittently funny, but hopelessly instructive), go skinny-dipping with a pot-addled car thief and run into a very cool Native American in New Mexico (the estimable Graham Greene) who becomes inexplicably smitten with our soon-to-be-heroine. Inevitably, we also visit Bree's tragically middle-class parents (Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young), who have predictable trouble with their son's transformation. Blowsy, loud and bottle-blond, Flanagan's overwrought mom is particularly cartoonish, and the film loses a lot of momentum in the wake of her hysteria.
Oh well. Even before Bree declares that "my body may be a work in progress, but there's nothing wrong with my soul," Transamerica has presented its credentials, more or less, as a Contemporary Comedy-Drama Dealing with Cutting-Edge Subject Matter. You might feel constrained when it comes to a standing ovation, but there's certainly enough substance and yuk here to go along for the ride. When Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis set out from Chicago in drag, they could scarcely have imagined what variations on the theme would, in time, come to the movies. But they would probably have a pretty good time here too. As for Felicity Huffman, simply sit back, watch and marvel.