Felicity Huffman is transcendent as a transsexual who rediscovers the bonds of family.
The story line for "Transamerica" sounds like a TV soap opera that has jumped the tracks, an impression heightened by the presence of "Desperate Housewives" mainstay Felicity Huffman.
But it's her sterling performance that lends the film much of its substance and enables it to rise above its plot. It's funny in spots, touching in others and uniformly life-affirming.
There's a convoluted narrative that involves jumping through multiple hoops: In the final stage of a male-to-female sex change, the protagonist, Bree, discovers that when she was a man named Stanley she fathered a son who now needs her help, which she tries to offer without revealing her identity.
But once first-time writer/director Duncan Tucker gets all the prep work out of the way, he sets off on a road movie that becomes a journey of discovery.
At first, Bree tries to duck out on Stanley's responsibilities when she gets a message (for Stanley) that his a teenage son from a long-ago affair has run away and been arrested after his mother committed suicide.
After her counselor chides her, though, she bails out Toby (Kevin Zegers) and cooks up a story that she's an emissary from a church that helps needy youngsters. That Toby has no qualms about going off with a complete stranger raises a few credibility issues, but it's necessary for what follows.
What follows is a car trip from New York to California during which Bree eventually comes clean about who she is, and she and Toby form a unique bond (to say the least): Is theirs a father-son or mother-son relationship? Neither is entirely sure.
Acceptance becomes the watchword, and it becomes especially pertinent when they stop to visit Bree's parents (Burt Young and Fionnula Flanagan), who are still mourning the loss of Stanley.
Huffman does a fabulous job demonstrating Bree's attempt to embrace unfamiliar physical traits. At times you can almost see the character thinking through each movement she makes so it doesn't seem masculine.
Zegers (from the "Air Bud" movies) spends most of the story in an angry pout. But there are great supporting performances by Flanagan and Graham Greene as a helpful man who lends the travelers a hand.
As good as Huffman is, perhaps the most impressive thing about "Transamerica" is its attitude. It could have turned Bree into a campy stereotype. Instead, it turns her into a person.
*** out of four stars
The setup: A transsexual in the final stages of a male-to-female conversion discovers the presence of a son who needs help.
What works: Felicity Huffman's exquisite performance as the protagonist.
What doesn't: The road-movie format makes the plot episodic.
Great line: Huffman is reminded that her son ""is one part of your body that can not be discarded.""