Saturday, March 18, 2006

Delightful & sensitive


After a string of forgettable movies, director Duncan Tucker comes into his own with Transamerica.

Transamerica is the story of a man who is in the process of undergoing gender realignment. A week before his operation, he receives a call from a New York prison and is aghast to hear that the person on the other side is his son.

Stanley, who introduces himself to everyone as Bree, is so ashamed of his male past that he does not want to have anything to do with his son. When he visits his surgeon who must decide if he is fit for the surgery, he tells her about it as the outcome of a "lesbian thing" he had in college.

Turns out the son is a hustler, who has lost his mother to suicide. Under pressure from his surgeon, Bree makes that trip to New York City.

Relationship trajectory

Transamerica then plots the relationship trajectory between Bree and Toby, as they chart their way literally across the breadth of America. She bails him out from the prison as a member of the Church of the Potential Father and thus begins this tale, in which Bree must ultimately divulge the terrible secret about who she is to Toby.

Transamerica works because it does not fall into the trap of maudlin sentimentality. In a scene, Toby tells Bree casually that perhaps, she is just not the suicidal type. "Maybe," replies Bree. To the viewer, this is an elliptical but moving explanation for an action that would have been a given in a so-called "towering grief" movie. But not Transamerica. That is to say, there is a realism to the movie, which does not cater to grandness. Typically like life itself.

Felicity Huffman shines as Stan/Bree with the clipped accent and the shoulders-always-raised primness. So evident are the dilemmas besetting her transsexual character, it's hard to imagine this actor juggles cranky kids as Lynette in Desperate Housewives. No wonder she won a Golden Globe for her performance.

In a pivotal scene, she speaks about how she is as much a child of Jesus, no matter her sexual ambiguity. The scene is important because it strikes at the roots of conservative stereotypes about sexual minorities. People are who they are. You can't straitjacket them into narrow definitions: liberal versus conservative, gay versus straight.

Real surprise

But the real surprise of the film is Kevin Zegers, who plays Toby. All of 21, Zegers portrays the dichotomy of being a kickass hustler on the one hand and craving parental love on the other remarkably well. His innocent proposal of marriage to his own father, and the aftermath of Bree's disgusted reaction, is a must-watch.

Transamerica showcases light on a community whose loneliness is a terrible cross to bear. It also speaks about how love ultimately conquers everything. No analysis, no post-mortems needed.

Speaking of transgendered identities, let me present the case of feminist Norah Vincent whose just released book Self-Made Man charts her experiences as a man, a facade she put up for 18 months to know about the relationship dynamics of a straight relationship. She adopted the moniker Ned during her little experiment.

In my mail exchanges with Sasha, I wasn't playing a role. I didn't try to write or say the things I thought a man would write or say. I responded to her genuinely in every way, except about my sex.

Our time together lasted the longest, three weeks or so in all. We had only three dates during that time, but we wrote several times a day. Naturally, during the course of all this, we talked about her past relationships with men, which, as she indicated at some length, had been less than satisfactory. I suggested that perhaps if men were so unsatisfying to her emotionally, she should consider dating a woman. To this she sent a sharp reply, something of the order of having about as much interest in lesbianism as in shooting heroin.

She had, by this time (about two dates and a week and a half into our correspondence), told me that she found Ned attractive, though she also made it clear that she was emotionally engaged elsewhere and was likely to remain so for a long time. Still, something had grown up between us in a short time and I decided that it shouldn't go any further. I would tell her the truth on the third date, which we were scheduled to have at the end of that week. I was curious to see what would happen to her supposed attraction for Ned when she learned that he was a woman. Would it evaporate?

We met for dinner at her house. During dinner I told her right out, in the blurted way our conversations tended to go, that there was something I wasn't telling her about myself, and that I couldn't tell her what it was. I told her that if we were going to go to bed together she would have to be willing to accept the untold thing and the physical constraints it required. She took this well. She was curious. Not frightened. She didn't need to know, she said.

The conversation moved on to something else and then back again to the prospect of sex and my visible discomfort with skirting the edge of full disclosure. We decided to go into the bedroom...She moved in response, lolling her head to the side. She reached up behind her and placed her palm on my cheek. She would feel the stubble now for sure and know that it didn't feel like stubble should. The jig was probably up. Anyway, this was about as far as I was willing to take it - the make-up was smeared now for sure - so I got up from the bed to move around in front of her, to face her on the floor.

"Do you want me to show you or tell you?" I said. "Whichever you prefer." It took me longer than I'd thought it would to spit it out. I was holding her hands when I finally did. "I'm a woman." She didn't pull her hands away. I went on immediately to fill the space. I told her about my plan to write a book and why I was doing it. Then I waited. She was still quiet. Then she said, "You're going to have to give me a few minutes to get used to this." We sat in silence. Clearly, whatever physical deformity she'd been expecting, it hadn't been femaleness.

Vincent's transformation is mapped out in these pictures. You can visit her website here.

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