Rated R. 116 minutes.
Cast: Hilary Swank, Chloë
Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton, Alison Folland, Alicia Goranson,
Jeanetta Arnette, Matt McGrath, Rob Campbell
|Grade: A||Review by Carlo Cavagna|
hen they tell you that Boys Don't Cry is about homophobia, you may be tempted to think that it's just another movie-of-the-week brought to the big screen, two hours full of boilerplate platitudes and canned morality. When you hear that Boys Don't Cry is based on a true story about a young woman who lived as a man in the Heartland and who was murdered when her secret was discovered, you may wonder why you even need to see the movie. You know how it ends; you know what the message is going to be. It might seem like the cinematic equivalent of a hunk of spinach–good for you, plenty of fiber, but not particularly appealing.
Nothing could be further from the truth. While other Fall 1999 movies like American Beauty and Fight Club monopolize public and critical attention, Boys Don't Cry slips through the cracks and blindsides you with raw, unvarnished power. As good as American Beauty is, some of the glib observations and plot conveniences ring false. American Beauty is just a movie, after all. But Boys Don't Cry isn't just a movie. And it most certainly isn't "about" any single abstract concept–homophobia or anything else. Boys Don't Cry is a real life drama, and a reminder that real life dramas are often more moving and complex than any concocted script.
Boys Don't Cry is the story of a group of young people in Falls City, Nebraska, where a flammable combination of personalities and events ignited in late December, 1993. But director Kimberly Peirce doesn't care about the sensationalistic events as much as she does about the people at the heart of the story. How did these particular people wind up as tabloid fodder? Who were they? What inspired them, and what frightened them? What did they seek, and what did they find?
The Big Picture
Peirce immerses us in the world of 20-year-old Teena Brandon, who lived as Brandon Teena, a man, and loved a teenager named Lana Tisdel. Actually, we never really meet Teena, because she doesn't exist. There is only Brandon. It's not just that Brandon cultivates a masculine appearance, with his hair cut short and his breasts strapped down. Every gesture, every expression, every turn of phrase suggests hat he is a man. When people look at Brandon, it doesn't even occur to them that he might be a woman. Most of the time, it doesn't occur even to Brandon that he is a woman. In fact, when you watch Brandon and Lana's intimate moments, you may yourself forget that you are watching–oh my!–two women. Brandon is not cross-dressing by choice. He is cross-dressing because he is a man trapped in a woman's body, and must alter his outward appearance to match his inner self.
Brandon is also a petty criminal. He shoplifts and steals cars so he can afford to hang out in bars and go out on dates. In trouble with the law and known to be female in Lincoln, Nebraska, Brandon moves to Falls City, where he befriends a couple of carousing ex-cons, John Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard) and Thomas Nissen (Brendan Sexton), and moves in with a flirtatious single mother named Candace (Alicia Goranson, from Roseanne). Romance between Brandon and Candace does not develop, however, and Brandon soon takes an interest in young Lana Tisdale (Chloë Sevigny) instead. Although Lana is initially cool to Brandon's advances, she soon finds him irresistible. Accepted as a man by an entire community and with a woman who loves him, everything is finally going right for Brandon. But you know that it's only a matter of time before somebody finds out about Brandon's secret. And then there's the matter of the outstanding warrant for Brandon's arrest.
As Brandon, Hilary Swank is stunning. How Peirce found Hilary Swank, heretofore just another pretty face with an undistinguisted career that featured a brief stint on Beverly Hills 90210, is a mystery. Who knew that the erstwhile Next Karate Kid had this kind of a performance inside her. In fact, it's not even a performance. Swank is Brandon, period. Not Teena Brandon, but Brandon Teena. Asked to do exactly what the real Brandon did–transform herself into a man–Swank succeeds on every level. Her transformation is note-perfect. Most of the time you believe you are actually watching a man. Not only a man, but a penniless young man from the Great Plains. There is no trace of Hilary Swank the Southern California bleach blonde. It's as if she, like Teena Brandon, never existed.
As Lana, Chloë Sevigny (The Last Days of Disco, Palmetto) is the most recognizable name in the cast. She does a remarkable job of portraying a frustrated teenager with a dead-end job in a tiny town. A teenager who has never been treated with sensitivity and respect. Who has never experienced real intimacy. When Lana gets a taste of these things, she hungers for them so much that she's willing to delude herself of almost anything. She knows there's something funny about Brandon. It doesn't matter. She has never met anyone with Brandon's joie de vivre before. She has never been truly loved before. Brandon re-connects Lana to the beauty and magic of the world around her. For the first time, Lana's future is wide open with possibilities.
As John, Peter Sarsgaard (The Man in the Iron Mask) gives one of those rare, extraordinary performances that gives evil a human face. Charismatic and gregarious, John is the guy everybody wants to hang out with at the bar or the pool hall. Sure, he's an ex-con, but everybody knows he's not a bad dude. It's a chilling moment when you first realize that all is not entirely well with John Lotter.
Having no family of his own, John has grafted himself onto Lana's family. The ultimate control freak who has never had anything to control, John is extremely possessive of Lana and her family–to say the least. He is dating Lana's mother even though he is only a couple years older than Brandon, and his relationship to Lana herself is unclear. There is something sexual between Lana and John, a sinister undercurrent flowing through the whole story, tugging at everything. It's not just that John is jealous of Brandon. He is initially quite accepting of Brandon, but he grows suspicious of the rapidly developing passion between the two lovers. Not only is it something he hasn't experienced with Lana, it's something that he's never experienced at all. John's suspicion turns to rage when he discovers Brandon is female, not just because he's been lied to, not just because homosexuality is "sick," but because the perfect man for Lana is not a man. It's an insult to John's manliness; it's an affront to his sense of right and wrong, and it contradicts everything he knows. When a guy like John has the foundation of his world shaken, he is going to do something drastic.
Peirce's most impressive achievement is bringing these characters and this small town to life. This Columbia University-educated director displays none of the condescension towards low-income small-town Americans found so often in the movies. Peirce may have a political or social agenda here, but she doesn't turn John or his buddy Thomas into poster children for prejudice and bigotry. Never once does Peirce lecture you. Brandon's questioning by the local sheriff (near the end) is the one scene that may seem a little heavy-handed, but as it happens, that scene precisely tracks the actual transcripts of the interrogation. There is also a bit of symbolism sprinkled in (Brandon runs past a rest room sign that says "women" and points in a different direction, for example), but for the most part, Peirce strives for pure, unadulterated realism. She does an admirable job of letting the story speak for itself. It does so eloquently.
Boys Don't Cry is an American tragedy. Like in those ancient Greek plays, all the characters are fatally flawed, and they drive the story inexorably to its inevitable conclusion. There is no sense that the outcome can be avoided. The characters cannot help behaving according to how it is in their nature to behave. All you can do is watch helplessly as events unfold, and mourn when the film is over. And remember that there once was a young man named Brandon Teena.
© November 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Fox Searchlight Pictures and its related entities. All rights reserved.