In 1993, a sexually confused 21-year-old Nebraska woman named Teena Brandon reversed her name to Brandon Teena, posed as a man, and became involved in a romantic relationship with another woman. When Teena’s secret was discovered the consequences were brutal and tragic.
“Boys Don’t Cry,” a dramatization of that story, is a powerful film if only for the remarkable performance by Hilary Swank as Teena and for the harrowing final 30 minutes.
Strapping her breasts down with an Ace bandage and stuffing a sock down her trousers, a short-haired Teena becomes Brandon. In trouble with the law for various indiscretions, she drifts around Nebraska, picking up on girls and eventually falling into favor with a group of white-trash, beer-guzzling youths, one of whom, Lana (Chloe Sevigny), she begins to have romantic feelings for.
No one ever suspects that “Brandon” is actually a girl. They notice that “he” seems a bit swishy at times, but the cowboy boots and flannel shirts help perpetuate the disguise, as do Brandon’s acts of stupid male bravura that help her become one of the guys.
Swank’s impersonation of a man is truly disorienting. While she always looks just slightly feminine in the face, one is reminded that so does Leonardo DiCaprio (whom she resembles more than a little), and no one thinks Leo is a woman. For several long stretches of the film, I forgot entirely that Brandon was being played by a female actor, so convincing, both physically and verbally, is Swank’s performance.
Brandon’s romance with Lana leads to sexual activity, where Brandon is careful, of course, to remain clothed even while making things pleasurable for Lana. This can only go on for so long, but Lana remains naively in love.
Her jealous ex-pseudo-boyfriend John (Peter Sarsgaard), however, and his minion Tom (Brendan Sexton III) eventually discover Brandon’s secret. The ensuing action is what gives the film its gritty, horrifying edge.
It would seem, in fact, that the movie is often spinning its wheels, just waiting to get to the grand finale. And why? Most viewers already know what happens, as it’s a true story and the film’s promoters have made no secret of it (I’ve not revealed it here merely out of politeness). So the shock is in the graphic details we’re shown, not in the acts themselves. John and Tom are never made to seem anything more than imbecilic and ridiculous, so their crazed actions do not add anything to their characters, nor do they provoke thought. (It’s not a case of two nice guys who for some reason snapped; these guys were idiots all along.) Basically, we’re already appalled at what happened to Teena Brandon when we walk into the theater, and seeing it enacted doesn’t really intensify that.
We can guess at Teena’s reasons for wanting to be a man — she’s attracted to women, duh, and folks in Nebraska don’t care much for lesbians — and we know she plans someday to get a sex-change operation. Aside from that, we are given only small glimpses into her psyche. So much could have been done with what assumes is a strong desire to be loved and accepted, and the feelings of loneliness and confusion she probably feels. But precious little of this is given us.
Swank, however, makes the most of what she is given to work with, making Brandon a sympathetic, if not entirely fleshed-out, character. Her performance is mesmerizing and bold, and deserving of the attention she has received. Sevigny, too, as Lana, seems yearning and hopeless in her small-town existence, and her affection for Brandon is heart-breaking.
B+ (; )