The LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community has transformed into the forefront of the modern civil rights movement. Cinema, with its long history of political activism (within the lives of its stars and the content of its film), has a moral obligation to be one of the voices of the LGBT movement. Yet Hollywood (and to a lesser extent, the independent studios) has failed to produce a rich library of queer cinema, and the LGBT-themed films that are made are often preachy, heavy-handed affairs that do more to call attention to sexual inequality (which was a noble cause twenty years ago when gay cinema was first becoming its own subgenre) than attempting to normalize such behavior for mainstream audiences. Perhaps that’s why director-writer Duncan Tucker’s Transamerica was such a refreshing change of pace. As much a father-son “road movie” as it is a look in the life of modern transexuals, Transamerica joins A Single Man and Brokeback Mountain as some of the most stirring LGBT cinema of the 2000s.

For the vast majority of us, we are born a gender, and we give little to no thought to that fact. We are simply men or women. Yet, a small minority of the population experiences a phenomena known as “gender dysphoria,” wherein they are deeply unsatisfied with the gender they’re born into. In adults, this often results in transexualism where surgical and chemical modification occurs to transform a man into a woman and vice versa.  Whether those in the religious right wish to admit it or not, people have a right to say what their gender identity is, and if a man wants to be a woman, she should be identified as such. In Duncan Tucker’s Transamerica, the womanhood of the male-to-female transexual Bree Osbourne (Desperate Housewives‘ Felicity Huffman) is an accepted fact for all but the end of the film (and only then, it’s questioned by a hysterical religious mother). While Bree is far from perfect and has the neuroses and moments of weakness that plague the rest of us, Transamerica is more concerned with a quiet character study of one woman’s realization that she has a son and the fact that she will need more in life than sexual reassignment surgery to feel happy and whole.

Played with a deep, almost intentionally robotic voice by Felicity Huffman, Bree is a portrait of carefully maintained order. Because she had no control over her own body, she is trying to wrest control out of every square inch of the rest of her life. On the week before her sexual reassignment surgery (where she will finally be a woman physically as well as mentally), Bree’s carefully maintained world of order (and loneliness) is shattered when she discovers that she has a son, Toby (Frozen‘s Kevin Zegers), from the sole heterosexual relationship she ever had. Bree has a history of ignoring facts about her life that she doesn’t like. She’s actually a chronic liar and lied to her therapist about being a virgin and lies about her parents being dead among many other falsehoods. Bree’s therapist refuses to clear her for sexual reassignment surgery unless she confronts this issue with her son. Bree hops a plane from L.A. to New York where she bails Toby out of jail. But rather than telling Toby that she’s his father (or that she’s transgendered), Bree pretends to be a Christian missionary and takes Toby on a road trip across the country that becomes a journey of self-discovery for both father and son.

Felicity Huffman astounds every second that she’s on screen. While some may find her performance to be unnaturally restrained, Bree is a woman who has been robbed of control of one of the most defining aspects of her life. Of course, she would then try to remain in perfect control of everything else, and emotional restraint is the key. When any thing happens to crack her perfectly maintained armor (from an eight year old girl asking her if she was a boy or a girl to being forced to accept that she has a son in order to get her surgery), Bree quickly devolves into an emotional wreck. With Felicity Huffman, the simple act of control and self-restraint becomes a cinematic seminar on how to show internal struggle physically. It is Bree’s restraint with the moments where she breaks down that ultimately define this tender and wrenching performance. From dramatic moments where her mother tells Bree she misses her son only for Bree retorts, “Mom, you never had a son,” to lighter, comedic moments that play off of Bree’s absurd formality, Felicity Huffman delivers an emotionally complex tour-de-force turn.

Looking like Zac Efron’s long lost brother, Kevin Zegers gave the film a much needed dose of wounded youthful vitality (that may seem oxymoronic but Toby was nearly as complex and contradictory as his father). Like Channing Tatum in Magic Mike, Zegers has one of those intensely sensitive faces that nearly transcends traditional performance rules. Zegers doesn’t have to do much other than be on the screen and look hurt for a scene to succeed, but he does that and so much more. Throughout the film, you discover that Toby has been the victim of sexual abuse, prostituted himself to men while in New York (and on one heart-breaking occasion, on the road with Bree), and has a drug problem. Yet, Kevin Zegers (with help from the script) lends Toby a shattered innocence. With his stuffed monkey and the action figure that sleeps above his bed, Toby is a poster-child of being forced to grow up too quickly even when you still cling to the vestiges of your innocence. Other wonderful turns in the film include Lost‘s Fionnula Flanagan as Bree’s hysterical mother and Graham Greene as a Native American that gives Bree and Toby a lift (and has a flirtation with Bree ignorant of her sexual history) after their hideous station wagon is stolen.

Transamerica isn’t simply a smartly written and terrifically acted film. Director Duncan Tucker also fills the film to the brim with gorgeous scenery and countless moments that tease at an ironic dichotomy present in the road trip. With many scenes shot at what Terence Malick called the “magic hour” (the hour before sunset which was the primary time he shot for Days of Heaven), Bree and Toby’s journy across the United States attains a nearly supernatural beauty of crimson suns dipping into lush, hill-lined lakes or boundless Midwestern plains. In his attempt to normalize transgendered behavior, the road trip segments (which are the strongest moments in the film before the ending tries a little too hard to “say” something) could have been about any father and son crisscrossing their way around America. In this case, the son doesn’t know who his dad is or that his dad is living as a woman.

Perhaps the most inspired choice though was for Duncan Tucker to show Bree seamlessly fitting into the deep South communities that she and Toby roll through. As she tells her sister, Sydney, after Sydney recommends a garish and loud outfit, “I’m a transexual not a transvestite.” Though the film does an impressive job of making the masculine but otherwise attractive Felicity Huffman look more mannish than usual, Bree can mostly pass as a woman (though the graphic sight of her penis more than destroyed that illusion). Few characters are more inherently blue-collar than Graham Greene’s Calvin Many-Goats, and he starts to fall for Bree over the two days they spend together. Dressed like she’s just left for tea with the local ladies’ association and with a somewhat stilted elegance, Bree was once a man, but she’s put all of her energy into displaying herself as a woman.

The decision to score Transamerica with primarily country songs and bluegrass instrumentals added another layer of ironic (and hilarious) commentary to the film. The film winds it way through what Sarah Palin would have called the “Real America” and you’re left with the indelible impression that there are far more Bree’s out there than you think. Proving that a film can be quiet but still powerful, Transamerica avoids the usual rules of tragedy that define much of LGBT cinema (even many of the films that I love) and tries to capture something a little more down-to-earth and commonplace (but no less beautiful). If cinema has the ability to transform lives, this film’s portrayal of a flawed but inherently relatable transgender woman has the power to create a dialogue on gender identity and the continuing absurdity that we even have to have a battle over LGBT rights in this nation.

Final Score: A-