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Monday, July 24, 2006 05:56 pm

Modern Families

Acceptance isn’t easy, when culture and attitudes clash

Toby (Kevin Zegers) and Bree (Felicity Huffman) road trip

Stanley discovers that he has a teenage son at the most inopportune time — just as he’s about to undergo sex-change surgery. The title of Transamerica (2005) refers to Stanley’s transsexual status and the film’s road trip across America. Stanley, now known as Bree and played by Felicity Huffman, bails Toby (Kevin Zegers) out of jail without revealing his identity, and the two hit the road for California. Huffman, who is best known as hypertense mother Lynette on Desperate Housewives, is a revelation as a man on the verge of womanhood. Her voice and mannerisms are so real, they’re frightening. Transamerica is hardly a preachy or dour examination of the problems facing transsexuals. Instead, first-time director Duncan Tucker opts for a breezy and genuinely funny road movie about a mismatched pair. Tucker also avoids the pitfall of sentimentalizing the son. Toby is an obnoxious, drug-dealing street hustler who picks up men when he needs extra cash. Bree sidetracks the journey to endure the wrath of her parents (Fionnula Flanagan, Burt Young). I can’t imagine why Flanagan’s hysterical performance was overlooked by the Academy. Huffman was nominated, and she should have won.

The Family Stone (2005) spotlights a more enlightened family, although their understanding has its limits. They warmly accept the homosexuality of one of their sons and welcome him and his African-American boyfriend into their home, but when their oldest son (Dermot Mulroney) brings home his uptight, flaky fiancée (Sarah Jessica Parker), they can’t stop ridiculing her. Critics reacted in the same unfair manner by tearing down a film that is surprisingly honest in its depiction of family politics. The tight ensemble features many fine performances, but Diane Keaton as the troubled mother and Rachel McAdams as the family’s most hateful member are the standouts.

Junebug (2005) bears some similarities to The Family Stone, and it was used as a weapon by critics to attack the more commercial movie. The irony is, The Family Stone is the more perceptive film. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have that “independent” label to bring it a patina of importance. The premise of a man’s bringing his wife home to meet his family is similar, but the inevitable conflicts are contrived. She is from Chicago, and his family lives in North Carolina. The culture conflicts are obvious, and we’ve seen it all before — and then the irrational actions of some of the characters mar the last act.

Sometimes smaller is not better.

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