Identity crisis

Boys Don't Cry, unless he's a she in this heart-wrenching true tale

 Boys Don't Cry, the first effort from writer-director Kimberly Peirce, unfolds as slowly and deliberately as the reel of film it's printed on, dawdling on the minor, mundane moments of growing up and growing bored in a small Midwest town. It's as though Peirce wants to show just how easy it was for Teena Brandon (Hilary Swank) to reinvent herself as Brandon Teena, at least for a while. But Peirce, recounting this true story, pulls off a neater trick with her drowsy, lackadaisical pacing, forcing you to care more about Brandon, the lonely young man who wants nothing more than to enjoy a few trailer-park barbecues with his girlfriend, than about Teena, the young woman with a desperate desire for the life she wasn't born to live. Peirce and Swank do such a good job, you almost forget what the film is really about until the chilling climax offers a brutal reminder.

Much of Boys Don't Cry, shot in and around Dallas, feels like a Larry McMurtry novel brought to the screen by Kids director Larry Clark; it deals with teenagers going nowhere in the perfect place to do it. Take away the beginning and the end, and the film reveals Brandon's double life rather matter-of-factly, during a midnight run to a convenience store to pocket a handful of feminine products and a casual, almost offhanded glimpse of Teena's morning ritual of tightly wrapping her breasts with an Ace bandage. Most of the credit belongs to Swank, whose previous performances in such forget-me-nows as The Next Karate Kid never even hinted at the gentle skill with which she handles the part of Brandon, a petty thief with a sexual identity crisis.

Her only misstep is the overexaggerated accent with which she saddles Brandon; she plays him like a West Texas roughneck, with a heavy dose of gawrsh and shee-it, may-in and all the other 1950s hick shtick that didn't make it into the final cut of Varsity Blues. Strangely, while Brandon is from the slightly more metropolitan city of Lincoln and the rest of the cast is supposedly born and raised in the dusty Nebraska town of Falls City, which doesn't even appear on the map, when Swank opens her mouth, you'd assume the reverse was true. Swank does indeed pass for a boy, but if her high cheekbones and soft skin don't give her away, then her voice does; you might forget she's a woman, but you won't lose sight of the fact that she's acting.

Unconditional love: Chloe Sevigny, left, and Hilary Swank are the doomed couple in Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry.
Unconditional love: Chloe Sevigny, left, and Hilary Swank are the doomed couple in Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry.

Details

Starring Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton III, and Alison Folland

Opens October 22

Official site

Directed by Kimberly Peirce
Written by Peirce and Andy Bienen

Then again, that's what Brandon's supposed to be doing, awkwardly learning to be a man after 20 years of living as a woman. Boys Don't Cry throws you right into the middle of the process, opening with a sort of unintentional homage to 1985's Just One of The Guys, as Brandon adjusts his newfound manhood in front of a mirror, much to the amusement of his cousin Lonny (Matt McGrath). It isn't long before he's trying out his act at a Lincoln roller rink and a seedy road house, picking up girls and picking fights. Brandon isn't just a man; he's a man's man -- a hard-drinking, bar-brawling skirt chaser.

One such dustup lands him in the southbound car of Candace (Roseanne's Alicia Goranson) and ex-cons John Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom Nissen (Brendan Sexton III). Brandon wakes up in Falls City and creates a new history for himself, as well as a new future, one that doesn't include his recent arrest for grand theft auto. But he tries a bit too hard, smiling too eagerly and broadly in his attempt to fit in. And he picks the wrong role model right away: Lotter, the kind of likable troublemaker every small town possesses. Lotter is deathly afraid of going back to the joint, yet not frightened enough to stop him from stealing cars or encouraging Brandon to try to outrun the cops instead of pulling to the side of the road.

It isn't at all surprising that Brandon is able to fit in with his new friends so quickly and easily. He's like Evel Knievel's puppy: cute and willing to do anything at any time, whether it's bucking on the bumper of a truck like a bronco rider to impress his buddies or shoplifting a chintzy ring to score points with a girl. To a circle of friends consisting of ex-cons and bored factory workers, Brandon offers hope of escape with his plans to head out on the open road for Alaska or "Memphis, Graceland, and Tennessee," and with his tales of his fictional sister, who's a model in Hollywood.

Of course, until he hitched a ride to Falls City, Brandon had never left Lincoln. And his dreams are far simpler than his professed life-on-the-road fantasies: All he wants to do is start his own trailer park on the outskirts of Falls City, where he and Lana will own their own Gulfstream and barbecue with their neighbors every day. Lana Tisdale (Chloe Sevigny), then, is his perfect match, a girl whose only goal is to make money singing karaoke with Brandon as her manager, or manage Brandon while he pursues the same career -- whichever works out best.

And in many ways, Boys Don't Cry is as much Lana's story as Brandon's, lingering over the depressing details of her home life and the cheap-high thrills of her and her friends, as they numb themselves in almost every scene with everything from bongs and bourbon to aerosol cans. Lana's mom (Jeannetta Arnette) seems to be mother to everyone in the film -- that's what they all call her anyway -- though she doesn't do much to deserve that title, gulping shots of whiskey for breakfast and coming on to all of her daughter's male friends. Not too hard to see why Lana takes to Brandon so quickly: She just wants someone to love her, and more important, pay attention to her.

Sevigny subtly lets on that Brandon didn't fool everyone in Falls City, doing with a slight change of expression what most actors can't do with a half-page monologue. Perhaps the best moment of the film is when Lana is recounting her night with Brandon to her dead-end friends Candace and Kate (Alison Folland). As she tells Candace and Kate an innocent story of walking and talking, the camera reveals what really happened, cutting between Lana's glassy-eyed confession and her dead-sober confusion when she spies Brandon's bound cleavage as they make love. When she smiles to herself after finishing her recap of the evening, it's clear that Lana knows everything -- maybe too much -- but the only thing that matters is that she loves him. It's such a tender scene that it makes everything that happens after it all the more heartbreaking.

Not that the film's final 20 minutes need much help in that area. Even though Lana doesn't care, everyone else does, and when Brandon's secret is finally revealed, it sets off a chain of events that are grimly, painfully real. Brandon's past and present collide so intensely, it's difficult to watch, a knockout punch that you see coming but weren't expecting to hit quite so hard. That's possibly Peirce's best trick of all, telling a true story so well that you can't remember how it ends. And when you remember, you hope that you were wrong.

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