Though six years have passed since the brutal rape and murder of Teena Brandon, the complex protagonist of Kimberly Peirce’s superlative dramatic feature “Boys Don’t Cry,” the story has grown only more compelling and relevant. This devastatingly powerful tale of a young girl who disguised herself as a boy is anchored by two fully realized performances, by Hilary Swank as the sexual misfit and Chloe Sevigny as her sensitive girlfriend. Audacious, accomplished pic should play well with open minded viewers seeking edgy, mature fare. Fox Searchlight release could become one of the most talked about indies of the year, although a major marketing challenge rests in pushing it beyond the urban specialized niche to reach young and sophisticated viewers generally when it opens in October.
The film’s richly dense narrative touches on many controversial and timely issues — the nature of sexual identity, biology vs. sociology in gender construction, role playing in modern life — as well as offering a perceptive anatomy of homophobia and intolerance in the American heartland. Bold and for the most part uncompromising, “Boys” reps a breath of fresh air at a time when most American indies have gotten too soft and too close to the mainstream.
Mixing fiction and nonfiction elements freely but astutely in relating the life of Brandon Teena (nee Teena Brandon) — who was the subject of a 1998 documentary, “The Brandon Teena Story” — Peirce and Andy Bienen’s multilayered script is inspired by the literary journalism of Truman Capote (“In Cold Blood”) and Norman Mailer (“The Executioner’s Song”), and by such uniquely American crimers as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Badlands,” rural sagas that viewed their subjects from a chillingly detached perspective.
At the most obvious level, “Boys Don’t Cry” tells a tender love story between two outcasts who are stuck in crude and stifling surroundings. It’s a tribute to the filmmakers’ intelligence that they don’t offer simplistic psychological explanations for the “bizarre and deviant” conduct of Brandon Teena. Nor do they mythologize her.
Set in 1993, story begins in Lincoln, Neb., with the 20-year-old Brandon (Swank) getting a boyish haircut and preparing for a night out, dressed in blue jeans, flannel shirt and boots. Though warned by cousin Lonny (Matt McGrath) that “his” behavior signals big trouble and “folks in Falls City kill fags,” Brandon insists that her life — now his life — is on the right track.
Brandon arrives in Falls City as a bright newcomer who enchants all those who meet him. Soon he establishes himself as a playful rebel, a sensitive and loyal friend and an irresistible romantic who seduces lonely, innocent and underprivileged beauties. At a local bar, Brandon befriends Candace (Alicia Goranson), a young single mom who invites him to move into her place. But as soon as he lays his eyes on the sexually appealing Lana (Sevigny), it’s love at first sight.
First reel unfolds as a series of rites of passage, with Brandon making every effort to be accepted by a group of men (all ex cons) headed by the macho John (Peter Sarsgaard), who’s the lover of Lana’s mom (Jeannetta Arnette) and infatuated with Lana, and his younger, brutish companion Tom (Brendan Sexton III). The clique, which functions as a fractured extended family, spends its time boozing, smoking and partying.
The sharp writing and nuanced acting pull the viewer into this tale of the double life of a fun loving heartbreaker. In several revealing scenes, Peirce documents what it means — and what it physically takes — to be dressed and behave as a boy while trapped in a woman’s body.
Second act centers on the tender love relationship that evolves between Brandon and Lana: their first date, initial kiss and outdoor lovemaking, which is crosscut with Lana recounting the experience to her curious friends. It is in these sequences that the neophyte Peirce reveals herself to be a deft helmer of emotionally complex and tension ridden situations.
Turning point occurs when Brandon is thrown into the women’s section of the local jail for cumulative traffic offenses and Lana comes to visit him. Confronted, Brandon contends that he’s a case of “sexual identity crisis,” born with some male and some female parts. With total understanding and unshattered belief, Lana continues the affair, which leads to a big party for Brandon’s 21st birthday at her house.
Midsection is repetitive and plods a bit (a few minutes of cutting would be beneficial), but last reel is extremely powerful in chronicling the rednecks’ reaction when a local newspaper breaks Brandon’s story. In a brutally harsh series of events, John and Tom strip, beat and rape Brandon. Last act, depicting Brandon’s murder in a ramshackle farmhouse, is almost too painful to watch.
Stunningly accomplished in every department, this first film boasts sharp cinematography by Jim Denault and flawless acting by the ensemble, with the two young leads contributing their best perfs to date and Sarsgaard, Sexton and Arnette also impressing strongly.
The poignant and candid “Boys Don’t Cry” can be seen as a “Rebel Without a Cause” for these culturally diverse and complex times, with the two misfit girls enacting a version of the James Dean – Natalie Wood romance with utmost conviction, searching, like their ’50s counterparts, for love, self-worth and a place to call home.