One of 1999's best, "Boys Don't Cry" will haunt you. 

Gender Bender

Kimberly Peirce's astonishing feature debut, "Boys Don't Cry," offers a tragic tale from America's darkening heartland. Without giving anything away, it is based on the true story of a young woman who passed herself off as a boy. At least, that was Teena Brandon's dream as she ran away from her corn-fed home to begin life as Brandon Teena. Sadly, others see her dream as a crime. And Teena pays dearly for it.

The triumph of Peirce's piece is that she resists the urge to turn this tangled life into a Jerry Springeresque trash fest where we in the audience can smugly disassociate from Teena's pain. Instead, Peirce deftly brings this story to the brink of common experience. "Boys Don't Cry" is always compelling and ultimately agonizing.

Peirce owes much of her movie's success to Hilary Swank's riveting portrayal of Teena, a reckless but determined teen who never felt like a girl and refused to live as a lesbian. Her award-winning performance is powerful and completely believable. Best known for her stint on "Melrose Place," Swank here proves she is an actress. Her efforts were rewarded with a Golden Globe and a recent Oscar nomination for best actress.

"Boys Don't Cry" pulls you in immediately, demonstrating the kick of role-playing or stepping into a role in life other than the one we've been given. Early in the film we watch as Teena prepares for a night out. Her hair is already cropped close with boyish cowlicks. We sit mesmerized as she begins "strapping and packing" — flattening her breasts with tape and stuffing the crotch of her jeans. While she puts on a loose-fitting flannel shirt and checks the image out in the mirror, the sparkle in Swank's eyes shows us that this transformation into Brandon thrills Teena.

"Boys Don't Cry" introduces us to Teena circa 1993, when she has to hightail it out of Lincoln, Neb., to avoid a date in court. She stops in a small town just south of the capital, but light years away in enlightenment. Falls City would be a shoe-in for Redneck Central. Hanging out at the local Quik Stop, the roller rink and town pool hall, Brandon soon becomes buddies with the dangerous John Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard) and his thuggish sidekick Tom Nissen (Brendan Sexton III).

Brandon also falls hard for Lana Tisdel (Chloe Sevigny), a sad-eyed young woman who once dated John. Like a few other ladies in town, Lana succumbs to Brandon's charms — not only is he nice, he actually listens to her. John and Tom aren't really thrilled with this, but Brandon is still enough of a guy's guy that they can overlook it.

Peirce and co-screenwriter Andy Bienen don't explain everything, allowing us to figure a few things out for ourselves. For example, we can understand why Brandon would want to hang out with men, but who on earth would want to hang out with John and Tom? So we in the audience have to start noodling out an answer: Perhaps these are the only kind of guys she knows. Or is she perhaps courting danger, hoping on some level that she will be punished?

I won't go into detail about what follows, because you can pretty much guess. From the moment Brandon hits Falls City, we know what's inevitable, the poisonous, destructive nature spawned from fear and ignorance.

Never preachy or sanctimonious, "Boys Don't Cry" rushes headlong toward disaster. Yet the snowballing fear stops long enough to allow us to see how tender and true is the love between Brandon and Lana. Unlike most films about inexcusable and inexplicable tragedy, "Boys Don't Cry" manages to leave us full of hope as well as sorrow. "Boys Don't Cry" is one of the most remarkable films I've ever seen.


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