Flicks - Trans American

HBO’s Normal plants gender issues in the heartland

Something’s always going on in Tom Wilkinson’s small, dark eyes, set far back in his craggy features. He’s English, but plays haunted middle-aged men on either side of the Atlantic, and unthinkable things often emerge from his exterior of placid normalcy. As The Full Monty’s downsized factory manager, he became a male stripper. As In the Bedroom’s grieving father, he considered murder.

Those and similar roles were warm-ups for Wilkinson’s turn in the HBO movie Normal, in which he plays a Corn Belt husband and father of two who reveals, after 25 years of marriage, that he’s actually a woman in a man’s body. Writer-director Jane Anderson finds plenty of incongruity and befuddlement by placing transgender issues in the heartland. While Normal doesn’t run from its humor, mostly it tries to treat its complex subject with respect. At times her insights falter, but she finds steadying forces in Wilkinson and Jessica Lange.

They play longtime spouses with the all-American name of Roy and Irma Applewood, who celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in the opening scene. Roy faints at a party, and at a subsequent couples-counseling session with the Rev. Muncie (Randall Arney), he makes the agonizing admission, “I was born in the wrong body.” But once he’s admitted it, he can’t be dissuaded from his plan to have a sex-change operation, despite the reaction of his family or his Joe six-pack co-workers at a farm equipment company.

Irma is understandably shocked, and Lange’s clearly fascinated at exploring her role’s different levels of anger and betrayal. When the reverend suggests that Irma herself may have contributed to Roy’s “condition,” the camera holds on her face as her warmly attentive expression subtly freezes over.

Anderson, who adapted the script for her stage play Looking for Normal, tries to examine all sides of the issue while avoiding manipulative movie moments. When Roy, preparing to start dressing as a woman, buys a 49-cent pair of earrings at the Bargain Bee, Anderson skips the easy punchline of having him ask the clerk something like, “How would these look on me?” Instead, the pay-off comes with the look of quiet revelation on his face when he puts those earrings on.

Normal perfectly nails some of its supporting characters. The Rev. Muncie makes a show of being open-minded and inclusive, but only perceives the situation in terms of “curing” Roy. He enthusiastically reads a Bible verse he thinks will countermand Ray’s wish: “‘For no man ever yet hated his own flesh.’ Bingo!” Clancy Brown is equally dead-on as Roy’s baffled but loyal boss, who strikes up an awkward courtship with Irma.

Perhaps the most interesting counterpoints come from Roy and Irma’s teenage daughter Patty Ann (Hayden Panettiere). Roy and Irma’s first private discussion of his transsexuality gets interrupted when Patty Ann has her first period — providing two different perspectives on what it means to “become a woman.” Patty Ann finds her father’s sex change plans to be “cool,” and, because she’s a tomboy who disdains “girly” outfits, she causes friction between her parents over gender and conformity.

Some of the filmmaker’s decisions don’t pay off. Anderson’s choice of recurring soundtrack songs are so campy and on-the-nose — “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” “Buttons and Bows,” “There’s No Place Like Home For the Holidays” — it’s like she’s being sarcastic at the character’s expense. Patty Ann’s comic explanation of sex-change surgery at a giggly slumber party feels contrived. And despite the script’s insight into most of the characters, the role of older son Wayne (Joe Sikora), a technician for a rock band, is ill-defined in both conception and performance.

Normal avoids taking shortcuts in building to its positive message about loving the person, not the gender. Throughout the film, Wilkinson and Lange convey the hard feelings that push the couple apart and the affection that pulls them together — a situation we suspect will continue after the credits have rolled. It’s a tribute to Normal that we accept that this couple can find common ground, even when the man of the house first puts on a dress and looks like Barbara Bush with darker hair.