In an early scene from Boys Don’t Cry, Brandon (Hilary Swank) is rollerskating with a girl he’s just met. She says he doesn’t seem like he’s from around here. Brandon asks her where it seems like he is from. She says, “someplace beautiful,” and it’s true. He is from somewhere beautiful: a simple and pure ideal of who he really is.
Based on a true story, Boys Don’t Cry takes place during the final weeks in the life of Teena Brandon, a young Nebraska woman who assumes a male identity and manages to exist for a short time as Brandon Teena. At a Lincoln bar, he meets John (Peter Sarsgaard), Tom (Brendan Sexton III), and Candace (Alicia Goranson), who take him to Falls City, the rural town where they live. There, Brandon meets Lana (Chloe Sevigny) and decides to stay. Unfortunately, history catches up and his true identity is revealed. Subsequently raped and murdered by Tom and John, the short life comes to a brutal end.
Teena Brandon didn’t simply want to be male, she pretty much thought of herself as a man. Conflict was not internal; it came from interacting with other people. Brandon was his own interpretation of the ideal male, whether he realized it or not. His appeal to Lana, and nearly every woman he came in contact with, is undeniable. Charming, attentive, thoughtful, he’s not like the men they’re used to. He’s not like anyone they’ve ever met.
Boys Don’t Cry is easily among the best movies of this year. Actually, I think it’s among the best of the decade. It immediately establishes first-time director Kimberly Peirce as an honest and powerful talent. This film is so expertly assembled that I almost fear for everyone involved. How can they possibly follow up such an incredible piece of work? This film is straightforward, tragic, and extraordinary. Much of its power comes from the astonishing performance of Hilary Swank. She embodies Brandon’s conflicted identity with such perfection that it’s almost like watching a documentary. She offers the best female performance of the year.
Chloe Sevigny as Lana is also amazing. Lana is trying to break out of the smallness of Falls City and the smallness of the people around her. Sevigny has been good in movies before, but never as good as this. Jeanetta Arnette as Lana’s mom is frightening; she’s the trashy, partying, and not very nice matriarch of the gang. Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III are excellent as the petty criminals who turn on Brandon. Lana’s mom, John, and Tom are everything that is ugly about human behavior.
This movie blew my mind. It speaks to the power of the medium unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time. Brandon’s human instinct to be himself and the brutal denial he faces in trying to do so will hopefully shock audiences into disbelief. The simple wish to live a life unburdened by expectation makes Brandon’s story universal. Boys Don’t Cry is a beautiful slap in the face.
+ David Kern