(R) 3.5 Stars

Ed Johnson-Ott

Kevin Zegers and Felicity Huffman in 'Transamerica'

I approached Transamerica with trepidation. My fear was that the film, which stars Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives as a preoperative transsexual, would either be sappy or strident. Instead, I was treated to a highly entertaining road-trip movie that manages to be both touching and quite funny. What a nice surprise.

Huffman, who already has snagged a number of awards for her performance, is up for a Best Actress Oscar. A woman playing a man becoming a woman - quite a task for a thespian, but Huffman is up to it. As Bree, who is one week away from the surgery that will make her transition from male-to-female complete, she creates an impressively-layered individual instead of an inspirational archetype.

Bree, originally known as Stanley, is a conservative woman; soft-spoken with a strong sense of propriety. Circumstances may have pushed her into a socially progressive area, but she remains a reserved soul with old school values. Settled in a small bungalow in L.A., she counts the days until the surgery with growing excitement.

And then she gets a phone call from New York City. Seems a 17-year-old boy in jail claims that Stanley is his father. Bree remembers the drunken night long ago when she had sex with the mother, but she never imagined the encounter led to a pregnancy. With her unwavering focus on the upcoming surgery, she does nothing about the call. Then her therapist (and best friend) Margaret (Elizabeth Pena) steps in, refusing to sign the surgical release form until Bree fully addresses the matter.

In New York, she grudgingly - and gingerly - bails out young Toby (Kevin Zegers, doing solid work), a lean, sullen kid who ran away from his small-town home after the death of his mother and has been eking out a living as a street hustler. He assumes she is a church missionary and she says nothing to correct him. Toby plans to travel to Los Angeles, where he will find his father and pursue his dream of becoming a gay-for-pay movie star in the wonderful world of porn.

Ah, the dreams of childhood.

Determined to do whatever it takes to secure the signature of her therapist, Bree buys an old station wagon and the duo takes off for the trip to L.A. This being a road movie, there are two requirements. First, the lead players will squabble a lot and have numerous confrontations before the inevitable bonding. Second, the people they meet along the way will either be stereotypical or quirky.

Writer-director Duncan Tucker understands the rules. Bree hides her transitional sexual status from the boy, not to mention her status as his parent. He hides some drugs, but makes no attempt to conceal his contempt of the staid church lady behind the steering wheel.

During the trip, which includes a stop at Toby's home town as well as Bree's, they encounter the requisite stereotypes and colorful characters, including a New Agey hitchhiker (Grant Monohan) and a gentlemanly rancher (the always-charming Graham Greene). And then there's Bree's nightmarish mother (Fionnula Flanagan, very effective), long-suffering father (Burt Young) and caustic sister (Carrie Preston).

First-time feature writer-director Tucker lays it on a bit thick (Note to the filmmaker: Too many quirky characters in one place can wear out the viewer.) and he stretches credulity awfully thin, even by road movie standards (wait until you see how long it takes Toby to figure out who Bree really is), but I found his missteps easy to forgive. Transamerica is a sweet, tender and funny look at two people trying to find out where they fit in the scheme of things. It's a fine family film.


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