boys don't cry
Film, 1999, 4.5 stars
Directed by: Kimberley Peirce
Written by: Kimberly Peirce & Andy Bienen
I often wonder if director Kimberley Pierce knew, as she was making Boys Don't Cry, that Hilary Swank was giving one of the greatest performances of all time. There must have been a great weight on her mind during this process. This was particularly difficult subject matter. There had to be something to draw us in to see this movie, something that makes us want to experience this even though the story is well known and we know what horrendous things happen in the end.
That thing that ultimately sucks us in and deserves to be seen is the humanity of Brandon himself, and the beautifully rendered love story between Brandon and his girlfriend Lana.
It is interesting that no one, not even Brandon Teena himself, could define Brandon's sexuality in terms that fit into the pigeon holes most of us are comfortable with. In fact, there is nothing in this film meant to make us feel comfortable; not Brandon, not this hideous Nebraska small town, not the sex, not the violence, not the aftermath. We are dragged relentlessly through a series of scenes and situations meant to stir us up. It compels us to think about the social pathology of not only Brandon, but all the characters surrounding him.
Brandon Teena didn't see himself as transgender or lesbian. He just wanted to be a regular guy with a regular girlfriend. He stuffed a sock down his jeans, cut his hair short, went to a town where no one knew him and tried his luck with the local girls. In reality (as outlined in the documentary The Brandon Teena Story) he dated several girls, all of whom thought he was romantic and sweet. In Boys Don't Cry those girls are all melded into a single character, Lana (Chloe Sevigny).
Brandon courts Lana. There's no other way to describe it. This girl who is used to the violence and neglect of previous boyfriends is suddenly faced with a guy who brings her flowers and wants to hear her ideas. We watch Lana literally thaw out before our eyes, beginning to feel like a valued human being and not just a well-worn possession. It isn't difficult to understand why Lana falls for Brandon. What is difficult to understand is what she's thinking when certain facts must have become obvious. Was it all an illusion she just couldn't bear to shatter?
Chloe Sevigny, a truly interesting beauty, plays Lana with the perfect mixture of world weariness and frightened hope. Lana is so deeply in denial about Brandon that when the revelation comes she acts as shocked as everybody else, but we can never be sure at what point Lana suspected or knew the truth.
It doesn't really matter. Brandon and Lana are in love, and we believe that they are in love. The gregarious-but-vicious John at first likes Brandon, but begins to hate him in the way any thug resents someone who takes something he sees as rightfully his. The humiliation of being supplanted in Lana's life is enough. Having Lana be with (in his eyes) a cross-dressing freak snaps his already frail and violent mindset. Sarsgaard is wonderful in the role, giving evil in the American heartland a believeable face. John is always on the edge, always just one push away from snapping. Once we realise what danger Brandon has gotten himself into, the rape and murder seem almost inevitable.
As repulsed as I was by the rape scene and later by the murder, the truly heinous scenes are when Brandon reports the initial rape to the police and is ridiculed and tormented. The scenes with the police were faithful to the transcripts of Brandon's police interviews, and they're so shocking it is difficult to accept that in this dramatised tale, these are the scenes that are the most accurate. They needed to be accurate or else the film would lose all credibility. In this case, reporting the rape was a violation as bad, if not worse than the rape itself. The words of the police are as violent as punches to the head.
The challenge for Pierce here was to let Brandon's story be both horrible and sweet and inspiring without sinking into sentimentality. The superb acting certainly helps with that, but the script too never tries to over-emphasise the lessons we are all meant to be learning. I don't know if I'd call this film entertainment, it is unflinching, uncompromising, and after the tragedy of the story enters your soul I don't think it ever truly goes away.