Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Change can be a painful experience. For those of you reading this in the U.K. and Ireland, you may be familiar with a show on Sky Sports on Saturday mornings named Soccer a.m. For those who may be unfamiliar, the show is essentially about football, but amid the football news and interviews, there are a number of regular sketches, one of which is a mickey-take of the Yorkshire News. Every week, a simulated newscast is transmitted from a 70's style studio, with retro effects, and of course, heavy Yorkshire accents. The point of all the stories is to mock the Yorkshiremen for their resistance to modernisation, or as the newscaster often puts it, "the ways of southerners". The refrain at the end of each bulletin is the same every week, as the newscaster winds up the story, he says "yet again ladies and gentlemen, another reminder, that change... is not good."

This spot is a jibe at stubborn males' resistance to change, but the refrain of the newscaster can be heard to be repeated in choral form by all the cast and crew members each week, almost all of them blokes, and always with a little laugh afterwards.

The mantra is popular for a good reason though, change is not easy, this is a universal truth. Humans are creatures of habit and while we like to break up our old routines every now and again, in the main, we like to be in control of any changes we encounter.

A friend of PCMR recently pointed out something that had been registering faintly with me of late, namely a trend in the type of movie reviewed on this site. Comedies and action movies, he said, is that all you watch? I attempted to defend myself, but I realised in the course of the argument that perhaps it was time for a little change in my watching habits. Time to get out of the comfort zone, and watch something a little more challenging. So, reader, you encounter PCMR in the process of change that started with 'The Wind That Shakes The Barley'... let's see how it goes!

When we are introduced to Bree (Felicity Huffman's character) in Transamerica, she is in the process of what must be the most radical change a human being can endure. In the first scene of the movie, she is being interviewed by a doctor to assess whether she is ready for the final surgical step in her gender change operation. (Yes, folks, this is a long long way from Crank!). In these first, quite moving scenes we are introduced to the Bree, and almost straight away the movies two main themes are introduced, namely personal change, and the coping mechanisms we use to deal with these changes.

Almost immediately after returning home from the hospital in these early scenes, Bree receives a phone call asking for Stanley, and she quickly responds that Stanley doesn't live at this address any more. The caller tells her that Stanley's son is in jail in New York, and needs to be bailed out. This news causes Bree some distress, and we quickly fill in the gaps. Bree is, or rather was, Stanley, and was unaware of the existence of her son.

Her psychiatrist acutely observes that Bree needs to deal with this news, and deal with it before the psychiatrist can agree to let Bree go through with the op, so Bree agrees to travel to New York to bail out her son from jail. But she is very obviously still uncomfortable in her own skin, her movements and gestures are exaggeratedly female, and still exude a practiced, somewhat alien air. Her face, too is feminine, but with elements of masculinity there also, around the jaw-line and the mouth mostly. When a small child asks Bree "are you a boy or a girl", Bree breaks down, still fragile to the telling eyes of the people she meets.

When faced with the decision to tell Toby, her son, that she is in fact his father, Bree procrastinates, pretending to be a missionary from the church instead. However, the young kid is desperately in need of help, hustling as he is on the streets of New York, so Bree offers to take him to Los Angeles, hoping to deposit him at his step-father's place in Kentucky along the way.

And so begins the transamerican journey. As with all good road movies, we learn much about both the characters through the people they meet along their way, some of them ghosts from either Toby's or Bree's past, and eventually their shared origins are revealed, through Bree's family.

Huffman's performance in Transamerica is remarkable for its courage. For a glamorous actress best known for work on a show such as Desperate Housewives to simply take on such a complex, challenging role is laudable. However, for an actor or actress to deliver a performance as total as this is really quite rare. Christian Bale recently underwent a physical transformation to play an emaciated sleep-deprived factory worker in 'The Machinist', and Robert DeNiro famously piled on the extra weight to play the overweight Jake LaMotta towards the end of 'Raging Bull', but in the case of those transformations, the person you were seeing on screen was essentially the same, only with a different physical size. In Transamerica, Huffman's physical transformation is such that you actually begin to question her femininity. This is a massively brave move for an actress to take. And we're not talking Gene Hackman wearing a dress and lippy in 'The Birdcage' or Kevin Kline dancing to Y.M.C.A. in 'In or Out' here. This change is not cosmetic, Huffman literally appears to be what she is portrayed as, a trans-gender male.

In the week she spends on the road, Bree gets to know her son, albeit incognito, and also encounters her parents for the first time in god knows how long. And in this, the second act of the movie, we learn a little of why Bree is the way she is. Because family, eh? Can't choose em, can't live with em!

But all the characters in Transamerica have their problems, their secrets and their issues to deal with. In a similar manner to 'Little Miss Sunshine', the coping mechanisms employed by each character vary, as do each of their degrees of acceptance of their various problems.

The characters in the movie are all believable people, constantly in the process of getting to know themselves and each other. The script is rewarding, moving, at times funny, but always bittersweet, and the dialogue is intelligent and subtle. And Huffman's performance is heart-rendingly brilliant.

So the characters go through change in the movie, and achieve varying degrees of acceptance with their own problems, as well as each others. And after watching Transamerica, indeed after writing this review, I'd have to agree with the sentiment offered by the Yorkshire Newscaster, change is painful. But it's a fact of life, and to not accept change, be it in ourselves or in those close to us, leads to pain, secrets and generally, things that are really... not good.

The verdict: A serious, intelligent, and poignant road movie. Huffman's performance is outstanding.
The rating: 8/10

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