Boys Don't Cry [DVD]
Director : Kimberly Peirce
Screenplay : Kimberly Peirce & Andy Bienen
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Hilary Swank (Brandon Teena), Chloe Sevigny (Lana Tisdal), Peter Sarsgaard (John Lotter), Brendan Sexton III (Tom Nissan), Alison Folland (Kate), Alicia Goranson (Candace), Matt McGrath (Lonny), Rob Campbell (Brian), Jeanetta Arnette (Lana's Mom)
While Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry has been heralded as championing the notion of "being yourself," it is really about the dislocation of that most cherished of all bedrocks in life: identity.
The film tells the heartbreaking true story of Teena Brandon, a 20-year-old woman who did not see herself as a female. Although she sexually desired other women, she didn't consider herself a lesbian. Rather, she saw herself as a heterosexual man, thus she decided to live life as a man under the name of Brandon Teena. Biologically, she was female. But, in all other respects, Brandon was male.
Originally from Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1993 Brandon moved down to the small town of Falls City, where he fell in with a low-rent group who accepted him for what they thought he was. (One of the interesting tripping places in writing about this film is deciding which personal pronoun to use for Brandon—he or she?—because he/she was, essentially, both. It is a tribute to Hilary Swank's Oscar-winning performance that I feel more comfortably using "he" rather than "she" because Swank is so convincingly male throughout the film.)
Brandon became good friends with John Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard), a charismatic, but sometimes violent young man, and John's friend Tom Nissan (Brendan Sexton III). John and Tom are important characters in that they represent brute masculinity at its worst. While Brandon imagined life as a male as something worth striving for, it is ironic and eventually tragic that his male friends turned out to represent everything that is wrong with traditional masculinity. John and Tom are not too bright, aimless, and often mean; John is especially dangerous because he has an impulse control problem, and it is chilling when he gets a certain burning light in his eye.
However, it is through John and Tom that Brandon meets Lana (Chloe Sevigny), a sad young woman who hates her life with her alcoholic mother (Jeanetta Arnette), but can see no way out. Having only known guys like John and Tom—wild, unruly, drunk—Lana immediately connects with Brandon's sensitivity and charm, his lanky shyness, and his sweet demeanor. They become a couple, Lana completely unaware that Brandon is biologically female. Even in intimate sexual situations, Brandon is a convincing male, although there is a moment when the film suggests that Lana suspects Brandon's biological identity.
Everything goes fine until the truth about Brandon's biology is unearthed. Most of Boys Don't Cry chronicles Brandon's entrance into his group of friends and his growing relationship with Lana. But, the last quarter of the film details how those who had previously accepted him into their "family" react to the realization that Brandon's identity is complicated in a way they could not have expected, and how that leads to horrible violence.
At the center of Boys Don't Cry is an outstanding performance by Hilary Swank, a relative newcomer who embodies the character of Brandon in a way that makes him both completely plausible and utterly sympathetic. She convinces us that she is a male, much as Brandon did in real life, and it results in the questioning of all those signifiers we commonly ascribe to gender. What makes a man a man anyway? What makes a woman a woman? Here, there are no easy answers.
Swank's chemistry with Chloe Sevigny, in a fine performance as Lana, is the film's foundation. If we could not be convinced of Brandon and Lana's intense relationship, the whole film would have slid into a crater of tabloid sensationalism. However, Swank and Sevigny's scenes together are both erotic and sweet. After being involved with men like John, it's not hard to see why Lana would be so enthralled with Brandon's gentle touch and giving nature.
The screenplay, cowritten by first-time feature director Kimberly Peirce and Andy Bienen, doesn't hide the fact that Brandon, behind his forced happiness, is deeply troubled. He has a history of theft and petty crime, and he has the tendency to lie. He tells his new friends that his father lives in Memphis, Tennessee, and that he has a sister who is a model in Hollywood, all of which are lies that are not necessary to maintain his male persona. There is something strangely disconcerting about Brandon's character, and the reckless choices he makes are often infuriating. However, even with his flaws, Brandon is an engaging character whose ultimate victimization is heartbreaking because it was so unnecessary.
The violence that is unleashed on him at the end of the film is ultimately a crime of confusion and anger; it is a direct result of unthinking men who can't deal with the rupture of sexual identity that Brandon poses. It is too much for them, and they have no other way to deal with it. In this way, Brandon becomes a symbol of everyone who doesn't fit neatly into the presupposed categories in the culture of everyday life. His tragedy is specific, but it is also much larger.
Kimberly Peirce put Boys Don't Cry together in a simple, but compelling fashion. She has a handful of technical flourishes and some pounding rock music to connect scenes together, but she mostly steps back and lets her multitalented cast do most of the work. She spent five years researching and interviewing to prepare for this film, and the hard work pays off.
However, she might be faulted for unnecessarily stacking the deck narratively—Brandon, Lana, and Candace (Alicia Goranson), the woman who lets Brandon stay with her, are the only characters who hold out even the faintest hope of audience sympathy. John, Tom, and the others are seen only in varying shades of despicable (one scene makes a point of showing John giving beer to his four-year-old daughter). By the time the violence erupts, their characters are beyond redemption.
Boys Don't Cry is ultimately a human story about misunderstanding and anger that led to the unimaginable. This doesn't mean the film is depressing or hopeless, but it is sad. It is sad because Brandon Teena was only one person who suffered because others could not handle the threat he posed to their understandings of the world. There are too many others in similar situations who are not recognized, and Brandon's tragedy speaks to them all.
|Boys Don’t Cry DVD|
|Audio|| English Dolby Digital 5.1|
English Dolby 2.0
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by director Kimberly Peirce|
|Distributor||20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment|
|The anamorphic widescreen transfer is near perfect. Colors are deep and lively, and black levels are nicely rendered, which is important because at least half of the film takes place at night. Detail is sharp and there is no noticeable artifacting.|
|The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is not showy in any way, but it is nicely suited for the film. Much of the film is dialogue, which is always clear and audible. There are several thumping rock songs on the soundtrack (from bands as varied as Lynrd Skynrd and The Cars), and these give the subwoofer a nice workout. Overall, the soundtrack creates a good atmosphere.|
|The most notable extra is the scene-specific running audio commentary with director Kimberly Peirce. Peirce spent five years researching the life of Brandon Teena, and her knowledge on the subject shows in her discussion of how the film was put together. She offers a number of fascinating insights into the film, and it is especially interesting to listen to her talk about her interviews with the actual people. The theatrical trailers are nice, but the featurette is typical waste of space, offering absolutely nothing new or interesting about the film outside of a marketing perspective.|
Copyright ©2000 James Kendrick