Of all the journeys taken in Transamerica, a cross-country road movie about a pre-op transsexual and the trick-turning, coke-snorting teenage son she never knew he had, the one that surprised me most was the turn from earnest indie flick to overcooked melodrama. It comes during an unexpected pitstop in Phoenix at the childhood home of the main character, played by Oscar nominee Felicity Huffman. Seeing her son Stanley as Bree for the first time, her mother says, “This would never have happened if you had only come to church when you were little instead of going off to that synagogue of your father’s.”
This breezy etiology comes after more than an hour of watching Bree pretend that her parents are dead and that she’s a Church Lady of the sort Dana Carvey once parodied. So why, in a film already overloaded with secrets, make Bree half-Jewish? Well, there are opportunities for cheap jokes—”Shalom Yisrael,” says Bree’s wise-cracking sister after her son Toby makes grace at the dinner table—as well as quick characterizations. Dad—dotty, shlumpy, cowed by his wife—may as well have been shipped in from Portnoy’s Complaint and sprinkled with toilet humor.
We’re not meant to take Mom’s verdict at face value, but these mixed roots read as a schematic choice, an obvious metaphor for the in-betweenness that has plagued Stanley/Bree’s life. Mom, volume set somewhere between Everybody Loves Raymond and “No More Wire Hangers!,” follows up her diagnosis by berating her child for never making a commitment—after ten years of college without a degree, why should a sex change be any different? Or for that matter, a religion? It’s a weirdly retrograde moment for a movie that claims to be progressive, as though gender identification and religious orientation were comparable, and as though both were conscious choices rather than psychological imperatives or matters of faith.
Somewhere between New York to Los Angeles, 17-year-old Toby half-mockingly buys Bree a baseball cap that says I’M PROUD TO BE A CHRISTIAN. Bree, when we first meet her, doesn’t sound proud to be anything—when asked if she’s happy, Bree tells a shrink, “Yes… I mean, no… I mean, I will be.” By the time Bree leaves the Bible Belt, however, she sounds almost evangelical. “My body may be a work in progress, but there is nothing wrong with my soul,” Bree tells Toby in one of the film’s few moments of moralizing. “Jesus made me this way for a reason, so I could suffer and be reborn as he was.” Sure enough, by the movie’s end, Bree, having had the surgery, has placed a small Christmas tree in her apartment, and it seems her covenant with her father’s faith has gone the way of its mark. Has Bree been born again in more ways than one? That’s one transformation writer-director Duncan Tucker hasn’t thought through.
In Tucker’s defense, Bree’s true background does magnify the gaping hole where Toby’s identity should be. In the car, he tells Bree he’s descended from Native Americans. How disappointing to discover that he’s actually one-quarter Jewish.