Montreal Film Journal

BOYS DON'T CRY

Hilary Swank stars Teena Brandon... Actually, Brandon Teena. She ain't sure. Er, he ain't sure. Well, a doctor would tell you she's a girl. But as far as Teena is concerned, she's a boy trapped in a girl's body. Such is the sexual identity crisis at the center of this wrenching modern tragedy, based on real-life events. The film begins in 1993, and "Brandon" is pretty confused, and "he" keeps getting in trouble. He's even been arrested for grand theft auto. But then, on a whim, he decides to take off, to go have some fun. And so he arrives somewhere down the highway, in the white trash nowhere-town of Falls City, Nebraska.

He meets a cute bartender named Candace (played by the very, very cute Alicia Goranson), and she takes a liking in this unusually sweet young man, so different from the brutes she's used to. She lets Brandon crash at her place, and soon he becomes part of her posse. There's John (Peter Sarsgaard), who did time in prison but is still a cool guy, and Tom (Brendan Sexton III), another friendly but not that smart ex-con who seems do everything John does, and Kate (Alison Folland), who works in a factory... And then there's Lana, wonderful Lana (Chloe Sevigny). As soon as Brandon sees her, he's in love. And from the look of things, it might even be mutual. But things tend to get more complicated than in usual boy-meets-girl situations when the boy is actually a girl...

"Boys Don't Cry" was co-written and directed by newcomer Kimberley Pierce, who instantly establishes herself as a major new talent. This could have been a sappy or exploitative movie-of-the-week, but not on Pierce's watch. Her film is complex, involving, and never phony. This isn't "Glen or Glenda". Pierce is not trying to make a freak show, but a simple, touching story about true love. The transvestite thing just makes events more confusing, and more intense in a way, because we're dreading the moment Brandon will inevitably be outed.

Pierce interestingly draws the Midwest small-town world where these events took place in 1993, and the effect this background has on the mentality of the characters. This is a small, poor, trailer park-type of hood. Crappy jobs, broken families, it's no Wonderland. Since it's all they've ever known, and there doesn't seem to be nothing better to do, the kids screw around, get in trouble, drink too much, get high... When violent acts happen, it's sadly not much of a surprise. I like how Pierce subtly makes you realize that though some characters end up committing truly evil acts, it's not necessarily because they're bad but in part because of their environment. There's a potential of good and evil in everyone. Nothing's all black or all white. Let's also praise Pierce for not going fro the dressed-down, drab, shaky-handheld-camera look of so many independent films. Her movie is stylish, dynamic and visually inventive. It made me think a bit of David Lynch's work on "Lost Highway", with the sped-up road shots and the almost expressionistic use of light.

And finally, there's the extraordinary acting, which is sure to be rewarded at the Oscars. The whole cast is strong, but Hillary Swank and Chloe Sevigny stand out as the odd couple in the middle of it all. Swank delivers a very complex, always compelling performance as Brandon. I know she's a girl (she was on Beverly Hills 90210!), but I often almost forgot it. Swank also has to go through some very harsh scenes and difficult emotions, and she really breaks your heart. Sevigny is equally memorable as Lana. You might think her role is less demanding, but watch closely and you'll see that it's as important for her to be good for the film to work. We have to believe that Lana falls in love with this "wussy looking" guy, and that she's ready to take the risk to be with him/her. Sevigny convincingly communicates that. We see that her character feels trapped in this rough, dead-end life. She wants out, and she's able to accept Brandon on his own terms. Really, these are two very affecting performances, which help make "Boys Don't Cry" a thoroughly riveting picture. It's a Romeo & Juliet for the Jerry Springer era. Easily one of 99's best.