Felicity Huffman is such a wonder, at once funny and brave, playing a pre-op male-to-female transsexual in the uneven comedy "Transamerica" that she sustains several lapses that might otherwise have sunk it. But Huffman's portrayal is so extraordinarily endearing and convincing and exquisitely nuanced that her Bree is engaging right to the finish.
What "Desperate Housewives" star Huffman manages is to depict a gender rite of passage that suggests that even a man convinced he is a woman trapped in a male body has had to learn how to express his femininity — and more important, to discover his humanity along with what kind of woman he will become.
Born Stanley, Bree has already undergone all the steps to becoming a woman except for the actual gender reassignment surgery. Bree has emerged as an angular, trim, middle-aged woman of self-conscious femininity and of prim and prissy demeanor who is rarely clocked as a transsexual. (Danny Glicker's costumes are a major assist: at once fluffy yet proper.)
Thankfully, she has an astringent sense of humor to offset her grandiosely precise way of speaking. She is a woman of strongly willed pride and dignity, and much of her life is spent in rising above dismaying situations with a starchiness that is amusing and admirably resilient. Huffman's performance is among the year's most distinctive and detailed.
Already armed with wide-ranging higher education, Bree is working on an advanced degree while supporting herself as a waitress and telemarketer in Los Angeles. She is eagerly looking forward to her surgery when she receives a phone call from Toby (Kevin Zegers), a 17-year-old Manhattan street hustler who's landed in jail and is trying to track down his father, Stanley, whom he has never met and who had a brief affair with his late mother. Bree wants nothing to interfere with her surgery, which took a full year to schedule, but her therapist (always delightful Elizabeth Peña) withholds her legal permission until Bree has met the son she never knew she had.
In a sense this is an unusually elaborate setup for a road picture, during which Bree and Toby become acquainted on an adventure-filled cross-country journey to Los Angeles, where Toby wants to become a porn star. Much of what happens along the way veers effectively between zaniness and poignancy, but director Duncan Tucker miscalculates when he makes a stopover visit with a transsexual group while Bree is passing herself of as a missionary to Toby and hiding the fact that she is his biological father. The inevitable moment of truth to which the entire film is building unfortunately occurs during a development that defies all probability but which Huffman and Zegers, who's up to being cast opposite Huffman, play with selfless daring.
Graham Greene, as a mellow Native American with an eye for Bree, lends the film welcome warmth and charm, but Tucker has directed that most formidable of actresses, Fionnula Flanagan, to go needlessly over the top as Bree's dragon of a mother. (More effective are Burt Young as Bree's laid-back father and Carrie Preston as her younger sister, in the midst of overcoming a drug habit.)
What Bree discovers in her journey with Toby is not only to be courageous but also that becoming a responsive, caring human being is as important as completing her gender transition.
MPAA rating: R for sexual content, nudity, language and drug use
Times guidelines: Strong adult themes and situations inappropriate for children
A Weinstein Co. presentation. Writer-director Duncan Tucker. Producers Linda Moran and René Bastian of Belladonna Productions and Sebastian Dungan. Executive producer William H. Macy. Cinematographer Stephen Kazmierski. Editor Pam Wise. Music David Mansfield. Costumes Danny Glicker. Production designer Mark White. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times