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Actress engenders dignity and inspiration

In Duncan Tucker's comedy ''Transamerica," Felicity Huffman plays Stanley Osbourne, an uptight preoperative transsexual who goes by the name Bree. Bree is at once tragic and inspiring. Her wardrobe contains overcompensatory amounts of pink, and her manner of speaking is lilting but pretentious (''perchance" is a favorite word). She lives in a shabby Los Angeles apartment, works in a Mexican restaurant, and sells products over the phone. It's as though she's been assembled from a low-rent Blanche DuBois starter kit. The key to Huffman's performance, though, is the way she plays the role with dignity. She likes this man, and so do we.

When the movie is focused on Bree's self-education in the ways of passing as a woman, it's fascinating. We're never less than convinced that we're watching a man treat womanhood both as a daily reality and as theater. It's debatable whether watching Huffman get dressed, take hormones, and learn to use a more feminine diction could sustain an entire movie, but the character is certainly a creation more original than a lot of the film itself.

Days before her surgery, Bree discovers that, years ago, she fathered a child. Her therapist (Elizabeth Pena) thinks it unwise to proceed with the operation until all her baggage is unpacked. Reluctantly, Bree agrees (''Perhaps, I can affect a reunion") and heads to New York City only to find that her now-teenage son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), has been arrested for street hustling and is nursing a dream of acting in gay porn.

Rather than tell the boy who she is, Bree pretends to be a Christian missionary and opts to return Toby to the Kentucky hamlet he abandoned after his mother's death. What ensues is a road trip across the country in a chartreuse station wagon, complete with the obligatory skirmish over which radio station to listen to. The journey is meant to bond father to son. Of course, Toby, a belligerent and dim young man, begins to feel close to Bree in a less than filial manner. This seems to be the only reason for not having Bree disclose to Toby sooner how she actually knows him. Writing and directing his first feature, Tucker makes the most with the cliches he has.

At some point Graham Greene shows up as a man sweet on Bree. He rather likes her espadrilles, old-fashioned ladylike demeanor, and strategically placed scarves. And we can tell he's a good guy: He's wearing a white hat. This is one of those developments you can see coming from miles, and once it arrives, it's more emotionally interesting than you might expect.

Still, a lot of the road business in ''Transamerica" seems borrowed from other interstate adventures, ''Thelma & Louise" in particular. This seems true right down to the stoned, self-described peyote shaman Bree and Toby pick up along the way. He's no Brad Pitt, but he serves the same purpose, sending Bree and Toby on an unexpected but magnificent detour to Arizona, where Bree's sister (Carrie Preston) and parents (Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young) live. They've never seen Stanley as Bree, and they certainly didn't know Stanley even had a son.

Here the heart guiding ''Transamerica" and the movie's flair for eccentricity achieve a touching kind of farce. Tucker has the five estranged characters trying crassly to understand one another, and the simultaneous carping makes for exquisitely awkward music. This sequence alone is worth waiting for because it's handled with deftness and care. Bree and Toby become far more fascinating than they were together in that car. And Huffman lays on a coat of comic desperation, like what one might find in the early stages of a Pedro Almodovar picture. But the film's loving appreciation for unapologetically flawed people and their unusual ambitions is reminiscent only of ''Some Like It Hot," Billy Wilder's gender-bending classic -- or at least the movie's last line. ''Nobody's perfect."

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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