Cinema Signal:

How to Change Your Sex:
A Lighthearted Look at the Hardest Thing You'll Ever Do

. "Transamerica"

The subjects treated by movies vary far and wide but there might never have been one made on the subject of transexuality that is as touching as this one lead by Felicity Huffman. And, many an actor has sought (and achieved) considerable recognition venturing into extremes of characterization ("Monster," Charlize Theron; "Breakfast on Pluto," Cillian Murphy) and Ms. Huffman scores in this area, as well. I cheer for her success in this almost as much as her husband and executive producer William H. Macy does, for she adds touch of endearing whimsy to the subject.

She is still really Stanley Osbourne, a telemarketer working from a modest home in Los Angeles. Her great desire in life is to become a full-fledged "Bree," (short for Sabrina), in a transexual operation. Holding the key to it happening is her shrink Margaret (Elizabeth Pena) whose responsibility it is to be certain the patient will be as happy with a new physical identity as he:she seems to be in the anticipation of it. Many a transexual develops regret, anxiety and forms of psychosis after the operation.

Just as Bree's final procedure is a mere week away, Bree (as we come to regard her) gets a phone call that could bring down the entire plan. The strange, unexpected phone call, coming in between her sales pitches, is from Toby Wilkins (Kevin Zegers) a teenage runaway, jailed in New York and looking for his father to bail him out. Bree laughs it off but reflects on the queer turn of fate that a brief encounter during her heterosexual days produced a child.

She tosses off this tidbit of chance to shrink Margaret, not expecting that legal permission for the operation would be withheld if Bree doesn't first get to know the boy. This sets Bree into a panic and then into her operation fund. She flies to New York, bails Toby out of jail and, masks her true purposes by claiming to be a Christian missionary who rescues street people needing help. Learning that Toby, an appealing opportunist fully aware of his sexual affect on others, plans to hitchhike to Los Angeles and break into acting in porno flicks, Bree offers to drive him there.

She buys a decrepit car from one of Toby's dope dealer associates and the odd pair takes off on the long road trip. She learns that the boy was raised by a step father in a small country town just a bit off their travel route. Thinking she's found her solution to the problem of an unwanted son, she takes him there and engineers a face-to-face reunion with stepdad -- a surprise for Toby that Bree hopes will become permanent. But when Toby accuses stepdad of childhood sexual abuse and stepdad attacks him viciously, Bree realizes her catastrophically bad presumption.

Mortified by the error, and after losing the car in another incident of mortification, Bree's regard for her son and his well being develops into a deeper concern and broader understanding. She tries to make amends by installing Toby at her parents' upscale house in Arizona, where unexpected chemistry between all concerned produce unpredictable transformations.

Deliciously, the adventure is unpredictable enough to become increasingly engaging at every new development, well thought out by writer-director Duncan Tucker. Kevin Zeggers is a very handsome picture of overconfidence with a deep seated gentleness that makes his rolling with every calamity so acceptable -- the perfect foil for Huffman's personal passion and conservative straightness. Moreover, he's not the stereotypical damaged, ill-tempered youth of many a social yarn. He becomes particularly sympathetic because of his rather gentle temperament. And, because he has that effect on us, we're on Bree's wavelength when she discovers her strong bond to the lad.

Huffman, an actress with a strong TV presence ("Desperate Housewives"), has inspired Oscar buzz over this performance, and deserves it. Not that the off-beat film is going to promote her taking the statue, but the attention is warranted and, already, an encouragement to a wider range of film roles. Husband William H. Macy must be beaming.

On an observational note, my congratulations go out to her for the best damned sex-change operation result in medical history!

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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