This indie road movie about a preoperative male-to-female transsexual is surprisingly lighthearted and entertaining, while tricking the mainstream audience that sees it into identifying with some of the real issues of sex change. Bree (Felicity Huffman) is in California working in a Mexican restaurant and telemarketing as the movie begins and her operation is about to happen. But when a 17-year-old son she fathered in her one straight sexual relationship turns up in jail in New York needing bail, her therapist won't sign off on the operation till she's dealt with this "parenting" issue.
Posing as a Christian social worker, Bree flies back (though this isn't made very clear in the somewhat lackluster early section) and retrieves the boy, Tony (Kevin Zegers). They bond and wind up on a cross country trip in a used car. Tony wants to go to Hollywood to become a gay porn star, and Bree must return there for her operation, so off they go, but with funny adventures along the way. Bree lives in "stealth," posing as a female but not yet transformed into one. Tony doesn't know she's a he, and certainly not that she's his dad. And that's a problem: children shouldn't be lied to. The suspense of the trip is about when and how much Tony will find out and how he'll react.
Bree and Tony make an odd pair. She is aggressively but primly feminine and a little plain and unsexy, though an Indian (Graham Greene) whom they meet in a lunchroom along the way takes a real shine to her. Tony is not only a stunner, but a gay hustler with a drug problem: he's from Mysterious Skin territory and when she takes him to his stepfather in Kentucky more of the harsh background emerges. He's angry at her for lying to him, but he also seems to love her in his fashion. They literally camp, and when Tony insists they pick up a cute boy in blond dreadlocks who likes peyote, they get their car stolen as a reward and have to hitchhike. Eventually they wind up at Bree's parents' posh spread in Phoenix and David O. Russell's most hilarious moments in Flirting With Disaster are evoked there by the larger-than-life, controlling Christian mom (Fionnula Flanagan) and the laid back Jewish dad (Burt Young). A sister just out of rehab (Carrie Preston) provides a bridge. Mom thinks Tony is a piece of trash till she finds out he's her grandson, whereupon she instantly adores and adopts him. This sequence is the highlight of a trip writer-director Tucker keeps continually lively.
The lightheartedness ends when the operation is covered seriously, with its terrible doubts afterward. These variations in tone work because of Huffman's dedicated but wonderfully modest performance. This may be viewed as Transsexuals for Dummies; and the liberal indie message comes a little too sugarcoated for those in search of edge; but Tucker has an unmistakable gift for specific observation and his individual scenes would be great if they interlocked a little more tightly. Felicity Huffman has gotten a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as a he becoming a she in Duncan Tucker's Transamerica. Girls and gay boys who tire of Huffman's noble, tireless character can just admire the voluptuous Zegers, a he who can be lusted after by both he's and she's and the carrier of the movie's none-too-hidden gay subtext.
©2005 Chris Knipp