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Boys Don't Cry

Fox Home Video

Starring Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny

Written by Kimberly Peirce and Andy Bienen
Directed by Kimberly Peirce

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

The true story of Teena Brandon makes for terrific, sordid cinematic fodder. A small-time thief, swindler, and fraud artist, female Brandon deftly masqueraded as a charming young man ("Brandon Teena") while looking for love amongst the vulnerable young women of Lincoln, Nebraska. These women, often neglected and abused as a result of the culture's rough and thickheaded interpretation of masculinity, responded warmly to Brandon's dubious sensitivity, willing to deny the iffy gender of this stealth Romeo.

Kimberly Peirce's film Boys Don't Cry picks up as Brandon (Hilary Swank) leaves Lincoln for isolated Falls City, Neb., where the women are even more desperate and the men both thicker and rougher.

In this new turf, Brandon takes a liking to mopey, drugged-out factory worker Lana (Chloe Sevigny), who seems more than willing to accept Brandon's ruse. But this blossoming relationship eventually runs the butch lothario afoul of dim, lawless roughnecks John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III).

Of course, Brandon's saga ends with one of the most shocking and sleazy chapters in the annals of Nebraskan crime, including a brutal rape and grisly triple-murder (depicted in the film, for dramatic purposes, as only a double murder), and a long, unseemly trail of crime, stupidity, and mind-boggling self-delusion.

Swank, who won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for the role, is terrific, running the fine line of gender ambiguity with reckless confidence, and her supporting actors flesh-out the white trash milieu as believably hopeless riff-raff and lost souls.

Unfortunately, director Peirce can't maintain an objective tone, despite establishing an effective, dream-like visual quality. Although she opens with the vivid (and accurate) visual metaphor of Brandon gleefully and recklessly weaving between lanes on a dark, remote highway, by the end of the film Peirce veers blindly into the untidy habit of romanticizing Brandon as some kind of gay martyr.

Swank can be forgiven for gushing over Brandon's "legacy" in her emotional Oscar acceptance speech, ("His legacy lives on through our movie to remind us to always be ourselves," she exclaimed, missing the entire point of Brandon's story). It is an actor's imperative, after all, to approach their character, no matter how troubled, free of judgment and with full empathy.

A director, however, needs to keep at least one eye on the bigger picture. In her political pursuit of painting Brandon as an icon of non-conformity brought down by societal prejudice, Peirce proves herself just as narrow-minded. To view Brandon as a persecuted innocent is ignoring the particularly sensitive nature of her emotional fraud — as well as her awareness of the inherent danger.

It must be said that no one deserves Brandon's fate, but neither would anyone be branded heroic for jumping into a gator pit in a chum swimsuit. It's this kind of thoughtless bleeding-heart mush that devalues the attempted social statement (which, mind you, is too remedial for effective drama, anyway). Furthermore, lionizing a deceitful head-case like Teena Brandon is an insult to innocent victims like Matthew Shephard.

The true martyr of Boys Don't Cry, although she barely gets a posthumous mention, is sweet, forgiving Candace (Alicia Goranson), the single mother who took Brandon in and was killed as a result of her tolerance (or stupidity: Brandon had already stolen money from her). But, as the dedication at the end makes all too clear, the message of Peirce's film isn't a plea for tolerance as Swank suggested — it really says that the lives of stupid straight people just aren't as valuable as the lives of stupid gay people.

The strong acting, save for overrated zombie Sevigny, keeps this one afloat.

Presented in 1.85 anamorphic widescreen and both 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby. Includes a brief featurette, several trailers, and commentary by Peirce.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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