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TRANSAMERICA (article first published : 2006-03-30)

Had the adorable Reese Witherspoon, now officially crowned as Hollywood's top-earning actress, not clinched this year's Oscar for best actress there could have been only one other truly deserving candidate for that statuette - Desperate Housewives Emmy-winner Felicity Huffman, for her stellar performance in TransAmerica.

She is superbly convincing, edgy and raw, as an introvert and conservative, pre-op transsexual in a small, independently financed drama that has won 12 of its 20 award nominations at various festivals and events, including the Golden Globe for best actress in a drama.

Not only is Huffman's physical transformation striking - she looks and sounds like a man becoming a woman - but her affecting performance is heavy on compassion and tenderness, rich in small details and subtle gestures, making for memorable cinema.

Huffman is Stanley, soon to be Bree, short for Sabrina, after an operation that will complete him as a woman. However, only days before the life-changing operation, Bree gets a shock - a phone call informing her that she has a 17-year-old son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), whom she never knew she had, the result of a fling in college. Toby, she is told, is in jail. His mother is dead and he is expecting to be collected by the father he has never known.

Reluctantly persuaded by her psychiatrist (Elizabeth Pena) to make peace with her past before she faces a new future, Bree sets out to collect the teenager, who has been arrested for prostitution. She does not have the courage to tell him the truth about herself, however, and pretends to be a Christian social worker who offers to drive Toby from New York to his stepfather in a hicktown, then on to Los Angeles, where he hopes to pursue an acting career.

It's this tension-filled road trip, by car, that forms the emotional core of a drama that was penned and directed by newcomer Duncan Tucker after an actress friend of his revealed one night that she had been raised as a male.

Huffman is clearly the standout, but Transamerica also paves the way for a potentially bright future for hunky Zegers, a 21-year-old who impresses after having made his name as a child star in the Air Bud movies, in which he played second fiddle to a dog.

Trasamerica also features Graham Greene, as a kind rancher who befriends Bree and Toby during their trip, as well as Burt Young and a rather excessively over-the-top Fionnula Flanagan as Bree's hideous, selfish parents.

It's a film well worth seeing. Rating: 8/10. - Billy Suter




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