Boys Don't Cry (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

On December 30, 1993 in Falls City, Nebraska, two men, John Lotter and Tom Nissen, shot and killed 21-year old Teena Brandon, along with two of her friends, Lisa Lambert and Philip Devine. Brandon, a young woman undergoing hormone therapy in preparation for a sex change operation, had been living as a man ("Brandon Teena") for a number of years, and had presented herself as such to Lotter and Nissen, with whom she became friendly. When they learned the truth, they reacted violently, humiliating Brandon in front of his girlfriend, Lana, then kidnapping and raping her. After Brandon reported the incident to the police, Lotter and Nissen resorted to murder. Because of the lurid details surrounding the case (sex, lesbianism, a woman masquerading as a man), the "Teena Brandon/Brandon Teena murder" fed national news headlines, so there's not much mystery about how Boys Don't Cry, a slightly fictionalized account of the story, ends. The fascination with the tragic film is in seeing how the situation develops.

For the most part, Kimberly Pierce's debut feature sticks close to the facts as set forth in the 1998 documentary, The Brandon Teena Story, Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir's amateurish-but-powerful exposé of the events leading up to the triple slaying. Changes have been made (for example, there are two victims instead of three, and the dead girl's name is Candace, not Lisa), but most of the events and characters are accurately presented. Certainly, none of the factual alterations dilutes or diminishes the film's brutal impact.

For me, because of its intense emotional savageness, this is the second most difficult 1999 motion picture to sit through (the only one tougher is Tim Roth's devastating The War Zone). It is not intended for those who are unwilling to confront the visceral results of intolerance and hatred. Pierce does not spare her audience anything - we see in graphic detail every indignity and torment visited upon Brandon once the truth of his gender becomes common knowledge. Those who cannot stomach these scenes will find Boys Don't Cry to be virtually unwatchable; those who can will be rewarded with a potent movie-going experience.

Most of the action takes place in the small town of Falls City. In his 1998 review of The Brandon Teena Story in The New York Times, Stephen Holden describes the community this way: "Falls City, an economically depressed small town with an all-white population of just under 5,000, epitomizes that sprawling rural and semi-rural section of the United States that might be described as the Land of the Pickup Truck. Those who live and work here may have heard of gay liberation, but they've never met an uncloseted gay or transgendered person and have no desire to do so. Although Falls City prides itself on being a close-knit, God-fearing community, we learn that it has a high rate of domestic violence." This is the unpromising oasis where Teena Brandon (calling herself Brandon Teena) arrives with the hope of finding acceptance and friendship. For a while, she has both, but, once the secret of her identity is revealed, Brandon discovers how fast things can change. The violence of her so-called friends' reactions makes a horrific statement about the deep-seated vein of homophobia that characterizes many rural, Midwestern communities. Lotter and Nissen are the only convicted killers, but they are aided and abetted by Lana's mother, the local sheriff (who treats Brandon, the victim, like some kind of sick, twisted criminal), and most of the other "good" citizens of Falls City. And the responses of people in this town are not unique - the same feelings and beliefs can be found in numerous locales all across the country. The 1998 slaying of Matthew Shepard, a gay man beaten to death by homophobic thugs, reminded us once more that the hatred directed at Brandon is not isolated.

Part of the reason for the success of Boys Don't Cry is the acting. The cast, which is comprised primarily of actors who have made their marks in small, low-budget features, is nearly perfect. The lion's share of the praise goes to Hilary Swank, who, with her hair cut short and her chest wrapped, bears a remarkable resemblance to the real individual as seen in The Brandon Teena Story. Swank (The Next Karate Kid, Heartwood) gives the performance of her career here. This is raw, courageous work that draws the audience in. We feel Brandon's confusion, uncertainty, and alienation. Swank's portrayal makes the final twenty minutes almost unbearable.

The supporting actors are more than capable. Chloë Sevigny (The Last Days of Disco) plays Lana, an affection-starved young woman with such a low sense of self-esteem that she deludes herself into believing that Brandon is actually a man, even after a sexual encounter. Sevigny's performance is more conventional than Swank's, but no less effective. She provides the counterbalance to the tide of hatred that drowns the last act of the film. Even after Lana is forced to confront the truth, she will not abandon her lover. Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III (both recently seen in Desert Blue) play Lotter and Nissen as typical redneck, "good ole boys" (right out of Deliverance). The most chilling thing about these two characters is that some people in this country regard them as heroes.

Sitting in a theater watching Boys Don't Cry is like observing a speeding train rushing headlong towards a certain crash. The ending, a matter of recent historical record, assures that there will be no room for an upbeat twist. We view events with a growing sense of discomfort as the inevitable catastrophe looms nearer. In her script and with her direction, Pierce has taken pains to avoid even the slightest hint of exploitation and sensationalization. Ultimately, she tells a story of great human tragedy - one that has happened before and is almost certain to be repeated more than once in the years to come. What human beings do not understand, they destroy.

Boys Don't Cry (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: 1999-10-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1