Friday October 22, 1999
Sometimes, too, a life not like our own can shine a clear and discomforting light on the hidden recesses of the human heart, and it's hard to think of a life more different, or more illuminating, than the one lived by Brandon Teena, the charming youthful Lothario of Lincoln, Neb., a young man for whom changing names had been just the beginning.
Terribly unhappy as a woman named Teena Brandon, Brandon Teena was someone who'd cut her hair boyishly short and took to wearing loose-fitting flannel shirts. She became adept at "strapping and packing," flattening her breasts and stuffing socks down her pants--someone who so succeeded in gender disguise that it's difficult to talk about her without feeling that "him" is the more appropriate pronoun.
Based on the agonizing true story of a fatally deceptive life, "Boys Don't Cry" is an exceptional--and exceptionally disturbing--film from a first-time director and writer (with Andy Bienen) named Kimberly Pierce. Unflinching, uncompromising, made with complete conviction and rare skill, this Middle American "M. Butterfly" is a passionate story about the price of dreams, a story that goes into a world few of us know and comes out with a drama we all can find a place in.
For who has not fantasized about being somehow different than we are, thinner, more glamorous, more appealing. But, as minorities of all stripes have always known, being different can cut two ways. And because Brandon Teena's fantasy involved transsexualism--not just seducing women but actually being a man--she put herself in the zone where difference is dangerous, where departure from the norm can inspire fear and revulsion.
It's because of this gift for taking a very specific story and giving it universal resonances that the savage but sometimes wistful "Boys Don't Cry" is as powerful, and as wrenching, as it is. And without Hilary Swank's astonishing performance as Brandon Teena, the film's success would not be possible.
What Swank, a young actress previously seen in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "The Next Karate Kid," accomplishes is nothing like the "Victor/Victoria"-type stunt it may appear to be. Just as Brandon Teena took her deception further than anyone could have anticipated, so Swank, in a piercing performance, makes us complicit in the agony and glee of Brandon's days and nights, letting us share in the strangeness, the bravado and the yearning desire to connect of this secret life on the edge. It's a bravura piece of work that not only lets us see how the real Brandon convinced so many people she was a man, it just about convinces us of the same thing even though we know the truth from the outset.
"Boys Don't Cry" starts out in 1993 in Lincoln, Neb., Brandon's hometown. There, he persists in going out on dates with impressionable young women even though some local men are riled up enough about his methods to attack the trailer he crashes in with his cousin Lonny (Matt McGrath).
"You're not a boy," Lonny screams, but Brandon, impervious to harsh logic, just grins and says, "Then how come they say I'm the best boyfriend they ever had?" Soft-spoken, thoughtful, considerate, quick with compliments and small gifts, Brandon certainly seems like the kind of dreamy guy not often found in those parts.
That's certainly what Candace (Alicia Goranson) thinks when she chats up Brandon in that Lincoln bar, and her grungy pals John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom ("Welcome to the Dollhouse's" Brendan Sexton III) initially share her good opinion as they watch Candace's new friend, never at a loss for nerve, throw himself into a fight with a much larger man.
These folks live in Falls City, a hamlet that makes Lincoln seem like Manhattan. They invite Brandon to hang out there and he agrees because the absence of people who know him makes it easier to do the one thing that lends a measure of pure ecstasy to life's most ordinary events, and that is acting out the pretense of maleness.
If there is a key element to Swank's characterization, it's the quick and ready hypnotic grin she uses to convey the sheer mind-bending joy Brandon felt when the deception was going well and everyone was fooled. Getting people, men as well as women, to treat him like a guy makes Brandon so pleased with himself he can barely stand it. He's in fact so heedlessly jazzed by what he's pulling off that he can't be bothered to see how much he's in over his head, to recognize the frightening position his fantasy life has placed him in.
Upping the ante is Brandon's love-at-first-sight crush on Lana (played with haunting immediacy by the versatile Chloe Sevigny), a teenager with a sick-of-it-all attitude who is romantically connected to John but whom Brandon immediately covets. Swank and director Pierce are especially good at creating empathy for Brandon, even when he acts with such utter foolishness he doesn't deserve it, and that concern for character, that refusal to typecast, refreshingly extends to John and Tom, who turn out to be an increasing unstable and violent pair of ex-cons.
All this is harder to accomplish because, as one character says and anyone who's seen the documentary "The Brandon Teena Story" can testify, Brandon's crowd in Falls City is part of a white trash world, where people mutilate themselves out of boredom, drink themselves into unconsciousness and genuinely believe there is good money to be made in singing karaoke.
Helped by Jim Denault's truth-captured-on-the-fly neo-documentary cinematography, director Pierce and Bienen and the expert cast engage us in the actuality of these rootless, hopeless, stoned-out lives without sentimentalizing or romanticizing them. The actors are especially adept at adding enough of their own innate inner lights to bring a level of interest to characters who in reality might not have had much at all.
One thing "Boys Don't Cry" doesn't do is soft-pedal the painful and horrifying aspects of Brendan's story; we share his lacerating journey right to its dark end. Unlike scenarios that play at disturbance, this film, especially in its graphic and devastating rape scene, is genuinely hard to take. Yet with an ability to metaphorically transform harsh aspects of existence, to show us reflections of our shared humanity in difficult, unlikely places, it enlarges our consciousness and reminds us of the truth of the often-quoted aphorism of the Roman playwright Terence. "I am a man," he wrote. "Nothing human is alien to me."
Boys Don't Cry, 1999. R, for violence including an intensely brutal rape scene, sexuality, language and drug use. In association with the Independent Film Channel, a Killer Films/Hart-Sharp Entertainment Production, released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director Kimberly Pierce. Producers Jeffrey Sharp, John Hart, Eva Kolodner, Christine Vachon. Executive producers Pamela Koffler, Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan, John Sloss. Screenplay Kimberly Pierce and Andy Bienen. Cinematographer Jim Denault. Editors Lee Percy, Tracy Granger. Costumes Victoria Farrell. Music Nathan Larsen. Production design Michael Shaw. Art director Shawn Carroll. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena. Chloe Sevigny as Lana. Peter Sarsgaard as John. Brendan Sexton III as Tom. Alison Folland as Kate. Alicia Goranson as Candace.