Vanity Fare


In the spirit of holiday community, this week brings two tales of transformative bonds between adults and children—both issue movies that encourage viewers to hug the outcasts in their midst.

By far the better of the pair, Transamerica sounds on paper like a gender-bending Broken Flowers: Days before her final surgery, pre-operative transsexual “Bree” (née Stephen, played with gusto by desperate housewife Felicity Huffman) is contacted from jail by a long-lost son, the product of her lone sexual encounter as a man. Forbidden from undergoing the knife by her therapist (Elizabeth Peña) until she resolves her feelings toward parenthood, Bree travels to New York to bail out the teenage Toby (Kevin Zegers)—as it turns out, a bizarrely angelic male hustler with a coke problem. Because Bree, posing as a missionary, initially plans to drop Toby with his stepdad in Kentucky—or perhaps because Trans World Airlines would have made an even dumber title—there’s a long, educational road trip in store for both of them.

As a kind of transsexual Gentleman’s Agreement, the movie manages not to belabor the expected trannies-are-people-too message. It’s clear that Toby’s lifestyle has introduced him to strangers far more discomfiting than Bree. Much of the movie is driven by simple suspense about when she’ll reveal her history to him; icky and perhaps audacious, the film exploits the tension between the two leads for maximal (trans-) oedipal anxiety. The relationship scenes are supplemented with casual moralizing, as a parade of weirdness-signifying supporting characters—an American Indian who wears a cowboy hat, a “level four” vegan, a conclave of other transsexuals—drives home the message that you are whomever you want to be.

Nearly everyone mistakes the duo for mother and son, and Huffman, for her part, never fails to convince as a woman. But Oscar push or no, it’s hard not to see the casting as somewhat craven. With real hips, real breasts, and soft facial features—and only a prosthetic penis—Huffman doesn’t have to stretch much to play a he who’s nearly transformed himself into a she. She evokes maleness largely through wrinkles and a baritone—not nearly a gender obfuscation on the order of, say, Hilary Swank’s in Boys Don’t Cry, but then, Transamerica‘s screwball casting negates the need for that kind of realism. With its genial attitude toward devastating family reunions, the film seems less interested in psychodrama than in aspiring toward a transsexual Flirting With Disaster—a similarity reinforced by Bree’s funny and spectacularly queasy visit with her mixed-marriage parents (Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young). Pleasant even without reaching much of a destination, Transamerica leaves the basic impression that it’s not as self-satisfied as it could have been.

It could have been more like The Kid & I, for instance. “Loosely based on a true story,” say the press notes, although “loosely” might as well have been cut: A washed-up actor (Tom Arnold) is hired by a billionaire (Joe Mantegna) to write a True Lies–like action vehicle for his 17-year-old son (Eric Gores), who suffers from cerebral palsy. Given that the movie was actually financed by Gores’s father—Arnold’s neighbor—and that the young Gores really does have CP, The Kid & I qualifies as the most indulgent kind of homemade project, laden with tediously inspirational dialogue and visuals that seem shot through half-fizzled Yuengling. Kudos to Gores, at least, for acquitting himself as an actor, and major tax write-offs for whoever got Linda Hamilton, Henry Winkler, and (briefly) the Governator to appear in this cinematic equivalent of vanity press (directed, amazingly enough, by Wayne’s World‘s Penelope Spheeris). All the same, would that The Kid & I met the same fate as the movie within the movie—one showing only at the kid’s birthday party.