Transamerica by Celestino Deleyto

Written by Celestino Deleyto. Posted in CCSBlog

Normal, U.S.A.

Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2005)

 

Celestino Deleyto

In the last decades the road movie, which started its generic history with a relatively inflexible structure and cultural specificity, has surprised everybody by adapting to a great variety of cultural and ideological discourses and by opening up to all sorts of generic combinations. Transamerica’s pre-operative transsexual heroine Bree Osbourne (Felicity Huffman) goes on the genre’s archetypal journey West accompanied by the son she fathered when she was a man. This journey, like the journeys in so many other road movies present and past, allows us to discover the contradictions, complexities, cultural and ideological differences and, ultimately, as usual, the beauty of the country. This journey, however, is, as the film’s rich title implies, not as important as the journey that Bree represents in her lived experience: a journey from one sex to another which is both complex in terms of identity and hopeful in terms of social recognition, and also a journey from aberration to normality. More than its heroine, the films strives to win the battle for normality and its nuanced comic perspective suggests that in today’s world, the concept of normal cannot be cornered anymore by the narrow-minded self-appointed representatives of “the majority.”

Bree is constructed as a combination of wildly unconventional gender identity and defiant conventionality in almost everything else. Even when elements of U.S.-inflected normality such as religious faith come from outside, they eventually become smoothly integrated in her personality. Religion, for example, starts as an afterthought, turns into a running gag when the characters say grace before their meals, or when Toby (Kevin Zegers) buys his father/mother a religious cap, but ends up as an increasingly deeply felt part of Bree’s way of dealing with the outside world. It is only when the travellers get to Phoenix , to Bree’s parents’ house, that we are able to put her normality in perspective. As her mother takes up the limelight, Bree alarmingly recedes into the background, suffocated by a tacky normal middle-class existence which makes spectators quickly reappraise our standards of what is normal. The journey practically ends here (the two protagonists eventually make it to L.A. but that is more of a narrative coda) and the road movie turns now into a dysfunctional family comedy which threatens to annul Bree’s mythic status by providing realistic and chillingly reasonable explanations for her sexual difference.

 It may feel at some point of this section of the film as if the narrative, which has so far followed a steady course, is beginning to meander when the river is getting to the sea, but director Duncan Tucker is particularly subtle in ending his movie’s journey in this way in order to upset our expectations and the ideological values that liberal spectators would generally attach to such concepts as conventional and marginal. It could be said that in Phoenix the marginal turns mainstream as the conventional becomes bizarre and even aberrant. Thus does the film’s ideology win the battle for normality, a battle which also extends to the film’s form. In the narrative and visual style of Transamerica, an independently produced and distributed film, we may also discern the extent to which the cinematic mainstream has assimilated the main formal characteristics of the independent cinema of the last decades of the twentieth century and blended them with classical melodramatic and comic strategies of identification. At this rate, soon the visual-effects-based pyrotechnics of the blockbusters and the cinematic celebrations of erstwhile normative sexuality and gender identity will begin to feel like the curious oddities that they perhaps are. Or, on second thoughts, looking at what goes on off the cinema screens, and looking at the variety-smothering figures of box offices around the world, perhaps not.

 

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