That Huffman sells the transformation process is key, because it's what the entire film's about. All the characters who enter and leave the world of transsexual Bree Osborn (Huffman) are put there by writer/director Duncan Tucker to facilitate her journey from man to woman. Some are there to offer emotional support. Some are there for her to mock as philistines; others are in place to shake her confidence. There are those who provide a baseline for how well she is passing -- while still pre-op -- for female and at least one character whose purpose is to force her to come to grips with the person she most desperately wants to leave behind. While Bree was still calling herself Stanley, it seems, she fathered a son, Toby (Kevin Zegers, very good in the role). Just over a week before she is to have her reassignment surgery, she finds out about him. He's in jail in New York. His mother's dead and he's whoring himself out to make ends meet. This launches Bree on a dramatic journey of discovery and rediscovery, in which, in order to press forward with her new life, she must come to terms with the hard realities of her old one. It all has the feel of a fabulous post-modern allegory.
Thing is, though, we've watched this kind of film before. We've seen this allegorical structure. Thus, we realize quickly that, because of the type of film TransAmerica is, all the things we want to have happen to Bree -- because she's a good person -- will happen. We realize that all the foibles and falters we expect of her -- because she's imperfect -- will slow her journey. We know to look for compassion in unlikely places, we know to wait out some of the more reluctant characters to come around on their own terms. We know everything is going to be OK long before she does. We know this because we've seen this film made before for other marginalized groups. It's dramatic irony so utterly stripped of its power that it actually works against the story, making the journey less compelling and almost devoid of tension.
There's no question the transgender community needed this film, no question that they deserved it. They deserve this level of compassion and they deserve to have their stories told. They also deserve, though, to have those stories told better than this, in ways that are less predictably Hollywood.
So while TransAmerica is a good and necessary film, and though it features some stellar performances, it will ultimately be remembered -- off in a more progressive future -- for opening the door to better films about this unique, frightening passage.