Watched March 16, 2009: Transamerica directed by Duncan Tucker, starring Felicity Huffman and Kevin Zegers.
Huffman plays Bree Osbourne – whose given name is Stanley – a man about to go through gender reassignment surgery (i.e. to become a woman). At about the last possible moment, she receives a phone call from a teenager named Toby (Zegers) who his looking for his father Stanley. It seems that Stanley had slept with a woman in college who had, unbeknownst to him, become pregnant and given birth to Toby. Bree’s counselor (played by Elizabeth Peña) will not give her required permission for the surgery until Bree resolves, or apparently at least investigates, this new conflict in her life. Bree travels from LA to New York to find that she has to bail Toby out of jail for prostitution. Through a series of minor events, both Bree and Toby end up driving an old dilapidated car across country to get to LA, with Toby having no idea that the woman he sees next to him in the car is really his father.
At this point it just becomes a road trip movie. As with any road trip movie, the characters encounter a number of odd characters, get into scrapes, have the inevitable misunderstandings, hatred, bonding, soul-searching, and truth-finding. The issues of Bree’s sexuality and her hatred of her male body versus Toby’s overactive exploitation of his do come up, but not, in general, with any deep social commentary, but most often are merely factors contributing to the road trip formula. Indeed, not overly obsessing on the social and moral issues can be seen as saying something: that these are just elements in these peoples’ lives, lives that have troubles and emotions and difficulties that we can relate to just as if they were caused by anything else. You can point, for example, to the fact that Bree’s issues of sexual identity alienate her from her parents. In another universe, or with other people, that alienation would come from other causes, and the story could play out much as it does here. Except, I think, for the acting. Felicity Huffman does a great job playing a man who is becoming a woman, and I would recommend seeing this movie just for that.
The always-enjoyable Graham Green makes an appearance as a man who helps the couple out while taking a shine to Bree; Burt Young and Fionnula Flanagan do a nice job as Bree’s parents.
Viewed March 14, 2009: The Trials of Ted Haggard – a made-for-HBO documentary directed by Alexandra Pelosi.
Ted Haggard is the founder of the New Life Church in Colorado; director Pelosi had met him while making previous documentaries and had grown to like him. After Haggard had fallen from grace (he had admitted to a homosexual encounter in which there were drug-related overtones) and had been kicked out of the church that he founded, Pelosi ran into him again. Evidently she palled around with him for a while and, being a filmmaker, pretty much always had a camera trained on him. After some time she had enough decent material to make this documentary. One story says that she used that obnoxious old “it’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission” canard – and she may have said that, but from what I’ve read she actually showed the film to the Haggards and they OK’d it.
The film follows Haggard as he lives his life of banishment, moving himself and his family from one temporary living space to another, seeking work, trying (and evidently failing) his hand as a door-to-door insurance salesperson, going to school with hopes of becoming a counselor, all the while hoping for and looking forward to the time when he can move back to his big house in Colorado and perhaps find favor again with his church. This is the backdrop for the running reflections that he has on his life in conversation with Pelosi.
There is irony a-plenty – not just for Haggard, but for the viewer and perhaps even for Pelosi. Haggard comes across as a really likeable guy, honestly struggling to find answers in his life (some might say honestly struggling to be wrong). He’s so likeable that one looks for ways to rationalize his past hypocritical teachings against homosexuality. I think in anyone’s world there are things you can believe and do only in private- in his world you would be an outcast not to speak out against them. (Just to be clear: this is the sort of rationalization I’m referring to.) One hears him saying how much he personally gained from psychological counseling, which is why he talks of pursuing it, and yet he continues to pour over the Bible to find comfort (one sequence has him walking in the desert with his Bible – I suppose Pelosi couldn’t resist throwing that in.) When asked if he still finds meaning in the Bible, he says yes: but that the meaning is very different if you’re on top of the world than it is when you’re at the bottom.
A very watchable documentary, showing the human side of a guy that it’s easy to dislike from a distance but harder to up close. People are funny like that.