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Movies

Review: 'Boys Don't Cry' -- America's tragic identity

November 23, 1999
Web posted at: 4:31 p.m. EST (2131 GMT)

By Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Director-screenwriter Kimberly Peirce's "Boys Don't Cry" is a devastating emotional experience. There's real bravery in this film, the kind that's almost been snuffed in modern films, independent or otherwise.

Peirce and her enormously talented star, Hilary Swank, both deserve Academy Award nominations, but it'll be interesting to see if the formal accolades roll in. The film hardly goes down like honey, and Peirce's laudably restrained camera records moments of graphic hatred with unflinching honesty.

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The main character -- a young woman who tricks her friends and lovers into thinking she's a man -- is at turns admirable and calculating. The thematic complexity lies in your shifting response to her predicament, and the realization that our culture only hands liberty to those people who fall into easily definable categories.

The story moves from intimacy to brutality in jolting free falls, and Swank negotiates the territory with a fragile, unforgettable performance. Coming pretty much out of nowhere (her last role was in 1994's quickly forgotten "The Next Karate Kid"), Swank, 25, boldly announces herself as one of our major screen talents.

Based on a true story, "Boys Don't Cry" follows the sad trajectory of Brandon Teena, who in 1993 was raped and murdered in Falls City, Nebraska, after her complex sexual ruse was discovered.

Peirce and co-writer Andy Bienen understand that the genesis of the killing wasn't simple embarrassment on the part of the murderers. Brandon (whose given name was Teena Brandon) made the mistake of being a better man than many of the male inhabitants of her small community. That she was forced into using deceitful ploys to attain sexual freedom is only part of her improbable story.

According to the film, Brandon straddled two worlds while trying to make a real home for herself, but the constricted social parameters of the American heartland could never accommodate such an experiment. Her tragedy is our tragedy, and that scope is what gives the story much of its raw power.

Peirce could have taken the accepted Sundance Film Festival route and turned the subject matter into a celebration of her own hip open-mindedness, but her focus is on character and slowly-dawning desperation.

The real thing

Brandon is portrayed as a real person, warts and all. She flees from the law in Lincoln to hide out in Falls City, and is even shown doing jail time for stealing an automobile. Swank, however, lets the character's inherent charisma shine through. You can see the exhilaration in her eyes the first time she gets away with "being a man," and, in the early going, she revels in the very machismo that ultimately does her in.

  ALSO:

'Boys Don't Cry' filmmaker saw past violence to love

She falls in with a close group of bored, boisterous friends who spend their nights drinking, drugging and fighting, and she's accepted as one of the boys in the early going.

Brandon soon enters into a passionate romance with Lana Tisdel (Chloë Sevigny), a 19-year-old factory worker who's so desperate to leave Nebraska that she's hoping to start a career as a karaoke singer. Lana's ex-, John (Peter Sarsgaard), still hangs out with Lana and her friends, and he grows increasingly suspicious of Brandon as the romance blossoms.

John and his best buddy, Thomas (Brendan Sexton III), are wasted on beer and pot most of the time. Their brute displays of showboating masculinity suggest that Brandon is heading for major trouble if she's ever found out.

The white-trash milieu is vividly staged by Peirce; over-pronouncement just isn't her style. And Sevigny, beaten-down but still wistful, has never been more touching.

Sexton is also excellent, in a limited way; for once, his mouth-breathing says something about the character rather than suggesting that Sexton himself is a dim bulb. Both John and Thomas are treacherously dull-witted, and the tension created when they catch on to Brandon's masquerade is almost unbearable.

Even if you're not familiar with the real story, it's easy to tell that this will end badly. Peirce doesn't skirt the issue, either. Brandon's eventual humiliation at the hands of her male "friends" is extremely cruel, and Peirce films her rape with blunt, horrifying clarity.

The documentary look of the picture serves it well. You may need to turn your face from the screen at times, but you won't want to turn from Brandon herself. Her humanity is violated just as much as her body is, and we all share a part in maintaining human dignity. Her killers, however, are also a part of our extended family. Peirce isn't about to let anyone off the hook, and that's her ultimate victory as an artist.

"Boys Don't Cry" is a tough ride. There's female nudity and off-screen oral sex, but the deplorable rape and murder are harsh and unsparing. This is a thoughtful but thoroughly rattling piece of filmmaking from a director who promises to be around for a while. Rated R. 114 minutes.


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