Boys Don't Cry
1999, R, 114 min. Directed by Kimberly Peirce. Starring Hilary Swank, Chloë Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton III, Alison Folland, Alicia Goranson, Jeannetta Arnette.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 24, 1999
Kimberly Peirce's first feature film is an amazing work, a film that seems to gurgle up from the American heartland, resonant and fully formed, ripe with possibilities. It's a beautifully crafted movie based on the true experiences of Brandon Teena and his friends in Falls City, Nebraska. Boys Don't Cry speaks to anyone who has ever wondered what would happen if the world were to discover his or her “true” self. What would happen if one of those hidden parts of our identity were to be uncovered? Would it turn out to be the key that unlocks the magic kingdom or would it be exposed as the ugly monster we always feared? The movie is based on the true story of a young Lincoln, Nebraska, woman named Teena Brandon who changed her sexual identity and transformed herself (sans surgery) into a young man named Brandon Teena. Her life went from one of sexual confusion and frustration to one of popularity and joy. As Brandon Teena, his ruse was undetectable: He was accepted as one of the guys, and the girls of Falls City found him to be a remarkably thoughtful and sensitive man. Brandon was at no loss for willing girlfriends, but seems to have set his heart on Lana Tisdel (Sevigny). How his life came to a violent end at the age of 21, a victim of a rape and a beating, is a tale that has also inspired a fascinating documentary called The Brandon Teena Story. Wonderfully evocative camerawork by Jim Denault (Nadja) is complemented by extraordinary ensemble performances by this group of young actors. (For her gender-bending performance, lead Hilary Swank has already been nominated for numerous awards.) The depth this film reaches would not be possible, however, were it not for the insightful script by Peirce and Andy Bienen. The movie is a murder mystery, but it seeks not perpetrators but motivations. And not only the motivations of the murderers, the anxious young men who feel threatened by their discovery. Boys Don't Cry also seeks to disclose the motivations governing Brandon, whose explanation to the police that he is undergoing a “sexual identity crisis” sounds like a woefully inadequate term to describe the situation he has found himself in. Room is also allowed for viewers to question the motivations of the women of Falls City, who could have sex with Brandon and still swear to his manhood. To what lengths will we go in order to see our loved ones as we wish them to be, not as they are? The movie is a story about class distinctions and life in the “flyover” states. Peirce is also generous to the “villains” of the story, painting Brandon's friends-turned-killers as society's victims as well. In this way, the story posits attitudes and belief systems, rather than individuals, as the real assassins. Yet Boys Don't Cry accomplishes all this without resorting to dogma, ideological tracts, or cautionary tales. It tells a gripping story that compels our attention by artfully asking those most intrinsic of all questions: who, what, when, where, and why.