Boys Don't Cry

         When the story of 21-year-old Teena Brandon, who spent most of
 her short adult life living as a man called Brandon, broke in the early 1990s
 and magazines like
Playboy and The New Yorker ran the expected profiles,
 there was a some sensationalism in the reportage (just as there had been
 upon the 1989 death of jazz musician Billy Tipton who also lived as a man
 and had been married several times). Gender identity issues, it seems,
 either strike a chord or confound. Historically, there have been cases of
 women who for whatever reason chose to live as men -- some for survival,
 others for more personal agendas. (There were several females who posed
 as soldiers in order to act as spies during the Civil War, for instance.)

         While there have been several high profile films featuring men in drag
 dating back to the silents (films like
and THE CRYING GAME spring to mind), Hollywood seemingly
 has ignored the female to male impersonators. (Yes, Dietrich wore men's
 clothes in some of her films, but you always knew it was Dietrich.) Except
 for adaptations of Shakespeare, Maggie Greenwald's
is one of those rare instances where a woman passes as a man.
 (This is quite different from Linda Hunt's Oscar-winning performance in
THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY and Tilda Swinton's stint as a man
 in Sally Potter's
ORLANDO -- in those cases a female actor was playing
 a male role.) For filmmaker Kimberly Peirce, this issue of gender identity
 held resonance and as soon as she heard about Teena Brandon, Peirce
 knew she had to tell the story. Over the course of five years, she amassed
 reams of research material, interviewed most of the participants and
 even made a student short. Now in her assured feature debut, Peirce
 has tackled Brandon's short life and produced something close to
 a masterpiece.

         As in any film that purports to tell a life story, certain liberties
 have been taken. Nevertheless, Peirce and her credited co-writer Andy
 Bienen have shaped a sharp and poignant look at the final years of
 Brandon's life. Some may quibble over the director's decision to begin
 the story with Teena's transformation into Brandon (his cousin is cutting
 his hair as the film opens) but it makes sense in a way -- we are
 witnessing the birth of the male persona. Brandon picks a girl at a local
 roller rink and soon the girl's brothers are chasing after him when they
 learn he is biologically a she. This functions on a dual level as background
 on Brandon as well as foreshadowing his ultimate fate.

         Peirce has a strong eye for scenic composition and has selected
 appropriate music for the soundtrack. While Brandon is no saint (he is
 running away from a summons for petty thievery when he leaves Lincoln,
 Nebraska for the smaller town of Falls City), Peirce takes pains to present
 him as a three-dimensional character, as someone seeking his place in
 the world. Charismatic in manner reminiscent of James Dean, Brandon
 attracts women like honey does flies, and even when these girls discover
 his secret, they continue to protect and love him. Filmed in Texas (standing
 in for Nebraska),
BOYS DON'T CRY has a marvelous look to it -- gorgeous
 sunsets and dusty plains that evoke both the dreams and the despair of
 those who inhabit such a small town.

         Peirce has also meticulously cast the film and each actor delivers
 memorable performances. Matt McGrath is seen all too briefly as Brandon's
 gay cousin and mentor; it is he who helps effect the transformation of
 Teena to Brandon. Alicia Goranson, perhaps best remembered as the first
 Becky on the ABC sitcom
"ROSEANNE" is strong as a single mother who
 first takes Brandon in and introduces him around. As the two male ex-cons
 who befriend (and later come to murder) Brandon, Brendan Sexton III and
 Peter Sarsgaard are perfect. Sexton had demonstrated his ability to be
 menacing in
WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE but here, effecting a
 physical transformation and nearly unrecognizable from his previous roles,
 he is memorable. His Tom turns his anger inward as indicated by his
 propensity to self-inflict knife cuts. Sarsgaard also delivers a strong turn,
 showing a softer side as well as a brutal one. It is only when he comes
 to view Brandon as a rival that his fury truly kicks in. Jeannetta Arnette
 is memorable as the mother of Brandon's girlfriend -- a hard-drinking
 woman who also serves as a maternal figure to John and later Brandon.
 She has several strong scenes and makes an indelible impression.

         However, the film soars when both Chloe Sevigny (as Lana) and the
 amazing Hilary Swank (as Brandon) are on screen. Sevigny continues to grow
 more impressive with each role she plays. An instinctive performer (she
 has not had any formal training), she is mesmerizing as Lana -- a low-rent
 drug abuser who briefly finds love with Brandon. There is one scene where
 Peirce trusts the actress enough to keep the camera tight on Sevigny and
 in that wordless moment, multitudes of emotion flash across her face. Few
 actresses of any age possess that skill -- Meryl Streep is one -- and
 Sevigny delivers. Watching that one scene it becomes clear why Sevigny
 earned an Academy Award nomination for this performance.

         BOYS DON'T CRY, though, succeeds because of Hilary Swank. Her
 characterization of Brandon ranks as one of the most daring and brilliant
 performances of the 1990s. While Swank nealry always contributed good
 work in the past (whether as the cheerleader friend of Kristy Swenson's
 Brandon Teena was the role of a lifetime. Swank delved into the character's
 psyche and completely transformed herself. But this wasn't a stunt
 performance, it was a full-bodied, deeply realized portrayal. She is
 completely believable as a man and when Brandon is subjected to indignity
 in prison and indifference by the sheriff following a rape, Swank is
 heartbreaking. That scene undoubtedly propelled the voters to proclaim
 her as the Best Actress of 1999.

         In interviews at the time of the film's release, Swank stated that
 she hoped she had done justice to the memory of Teena Brandon. The
 actress, along with director Kimberly Peirce and the rest of the cast and
 crew have done that and more. Without resorting to sensationalism, they
 created a fitting monument to the memory of a brief life of an imperfect
 but utterly fascinating person.
BOYS DON'T CRY, despite some minor
 flaws, ranks as one of the best films of the 1990s.

                                   Rating:             A-

© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.