DESPERATE Housewives lead actress and Academy Award nominee Felicity Huffman flaunts her artistic versatility by playing another “desperate” protagonist, this time a gender-dysphoric transsexual, in an independent movie of the same intriguing prefix as her role, “Transamerica.”

Written and directed by Duncan Tucker and produced by William H. Macy, “Transamerica” stars Huffman as the pre-operative transsexual Bree Osborne. An agonizing week before his long, pending sexual reassignment surgery, Bree receives an unexpected phone call from a 17-year-old hustler named Toby (Kevin Zegers), who is detained in New York downtown local jail. The boy is looking for his father Stanley, Bree’s real and former identity. Aware of this situation, Bree’s psychotherapist, Margaret (Elizabeth Peña), firmly orders Bree not to go through his much-awaited operation, until he meets with Toby and confronts this aspect of his past.

Upon bailing out his son, Bree disguises as a missionary to hide his true identity and to have an alibi so he can bring Toby back to Texas where the boy’s immediate family resides. But unresolved issues in Toby’s hometown destroy Bree’s motive, forcing them to a longer road trip to Bree’s home in Los Angeles. The trip’s detours and stopovers fill the whole journey with overwhelming revelations, which all change the two characters’ perceptions and feelings towards each other.

Huffman’s incomparable portrayal of Bree, affirmed among others by awards from the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes, and a nomination from the Oscars, illuminates the conflict of the movie. Her version of the prim and proper but psychologically wounded Bree Osborne communicates the character’s frustrations and failures over his quest for satisfaction in life, as when Bree calls Margaret to express how humiliated and hurt he was after a little girl in a restaurant questioned his femininity.

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On the other hand, Zegers is a real revelation. The actor’s consistent unaffected approach to the role of a troubled teenager coupled with acting angst build up the parent-son tension in the movie, as shown by numerous verbal arguments between Bree and Toby over the latter’s smoking and drug addiction.

The film is unconventionally comical despite the characters’ underlying struggles, the actors effectively avoiding too much drama. But underneath the humorous surface, the movie should make viewers realize how bizarre people can be, and how they can crave badly for acceptance, if love is too much to ask for.

Mark White’s production design conveys the conservative charm of the U.S. middle region through scenes set in Texas and Arizona. David Mansfield’s fine musical score meanwhile is supplemented by a clutch of diverse tunes ranging from Chopin to The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to Dolly Parton.

Happiness can never be found by a simple nip and tuck the movie says. “Transamerica” engrosses its viewers not with its gender politics, but by expressing the loneliness, emotional honesty, and the simple need for human kindness toward an individual with a psychological dilemma.

“Transamerica” not only transcends common perceptions about transsexualism and gender discrimination, but also shows how valuable family is, in search of one’s happiness and fulfillment.

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