Being based on a true story is somehow a blessing and a curse for a film. All too often, such movies try to capitalize on their origins to deliver an emotional impact which the film itself cannot provide. Such is not the case with Boys Don’t Cry, a compelling and tragic tale that tells the true story of Teena Brandon, a biological female who adopted the name “Brandon”, and decided to live his life as a man. Boys Don’t Cry makes no attempt to hide the crucial fact behind Brandon’s existence: his birth sex. This isn’t an exploitative or patronizing movie-of-the-week…this is simply good cinema.
We are introduced to Brandon (Hillary Swank) as he is getting a short haircut from his gay cousin, Lonnie (Matt McGrath), just before a night on the town. Brandon despises the labels which have been placed on him: he is not a woman, not a lesbian. Brandon doesn’t have time for a drawn-out and costly sex-change. There’s a world out there to explore, and girls to meet. Unfortunately, that world and those girls have costs, and Brandon’s life of petty crime sends him on the road out of Lincoln, Nebraska.
Brandon ends up in the small town of Falls City. There, he is adopted by a ragtag group of friends. First, he catches the eye of Candace (Alicia Goranson), who introduces him to her good-ol’-boy pals John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III). But it is the karaoke charms of John’s ex-girlfriend Lana (Chloe Sevigny) which entrance Brandon, and convince him to stay in this small town.
But as Lana and Brandon grow closer, and John’s jealous eye looms, Brandon’s secret seems destined to come out. Who knows what, and when become crucial questions which drive the plot onward. A violent reaction to Brandon’s deception may be inevitable, but is no less tragic.
Boys Don’t Cry is not about Brandon’s transgendered identity, although that identity conflict plays an important role. The movie is a portrait of people, drawn vividly and realistically. The issue of Brandon’s gender is always present, but never dwelled upon. The film is not a portrait of a tortured soul, but rather of a vibrant, energetic young man who just happens to have been born a woman.
Hillary Swank gives a powerful, moving performance, showing a range of talent which was unforseen, given her lackluster turns in such fare as The Next Karate Kid or Beverly Hills, 90210. She slips into the male role with such ease, and submerges herself so deeply, that it is easy to understand how the people of Falls City never suspected the truth. But, more than simply being a convincing gender-bender, Swank embues Brandon with personality, charm, and an amazing spark of life.
The romance between Lana and Brandon is tenderly played by Sevigny and Swank. For the audience, which knows the truth, the romance goes deeper beyond that of man-woman, or woman-woman, and truly seems to be a relationship between people, between kindred souls. This is thanks in large part to a touching performance by Chloe Sevigny.
John and Tom are not dismissed as simple redneck thugs, but the screenplay, and layered performances from Sarsgaard and Sexton, give insight into the motives and actions of these two complex men. Their actions are never excused, but the film attempts to reach an understanding of why they acted the way they did.
Even if you are aware of the facts behind Brandon’s story, the film is far more than a simple documentary retelling. Director Kimberly Peirce brings the people and the small town of Falls City alive. Boys Don’t Cry is a beautiful story of a doomed romance, an intriguing examination of small-town America, a shocking portrayal of the destructive power of hate, and one of the most powerful films of the year.