Rated R - Running Time: 1:58 - Released 10/22/99

While the antihero is a popular theme for motion picture drama in this country (Americans love an underdog), there is some ground on which even movie producers usually fear to tread. One such subject is what some might call "sexual perversity"; that a person might choose not to follow the traditional path dictated by society for members of his or her sex is extremely upsetting to many people. Boys Don't Cry is a story about a young Nebraska woman who was uncomfortable with the gender role she was expected to play, and therefore attempted to make a way for herself in the sexual and societal arenas masquerading as a man. It is a testament to the courage of writer/director Kimberly Peirce, co-writer Andy Bienen, and leading actors Hilary Swank and Chloë Sevigny that they would not only attempt to tell this tragic, true story, but would tell it with such honesty and truth. Although the subject matter, and graphic way in which it is portrayed, may be profoundly disturbing to some, the performances by Swank and Sevigny are incredibly real and heartfelt, and the honesty of the script and direction impeccable.

Brandon Teena (Swank), as we learn early on, is actually Teena Brandon, a young woman who, for whatever reason, feels more comfortable in society as a male. Adopting a short, neat haircut and stuffing a sock in her blue jeans, she leaves her hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, just before her 21st birthday in 1993, and travels to Falls City, an ultra-conservative town where she knows sexual ambiguity is not accepted. As a young man, however, Brandon jumps into the world of testosterone with both feet, drinking, driving, "bumper skiing," and meeting some friends who seem to accept him as what he wants to be. Good-old-boys John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III) are both ex-cons who seem to live on beer and pot, and Kate (Alison Folland) and Candace (Alicia Goranson) are their female counterparts. But the one who really catches Brandon's eye is Lana Tisdal (Sevigny), an attractive girl who is currently dating John. As Brandon becomes one of the group, and he and Lana grow closer together, there soon emerges the real possibility that his dreadful secret is going to be discovered. How he handles this situation with Lana is difficult enough, but beyond that is the real danger of John, Tom, and Lana's mother (Jeanetta Arnette), with their homophobic sensibilities and beer-fueled impulses.

Regardless of one's attitude regarding transgender experimentation, one can imagine how difficult it would be to play such a part as Brandon, all the more so because of the fact that the person actually lived. Swank portrays this character with the kind of honesty that forces us to like Brandon, even if we can't always understand his desires or intentions. On the surface, as Brandon's secret is discovered, it seems a logical solution for him to just leave town and escape the circumstances, but Swank shows us how love can complicate such simple answers; this was never really an option. Just as remarkable is Sevigny as Lana, a girl who must make the kind of unpleasant choices between love, family, and social acceptance that most of us are glad we are never in a position to contemplate. The film's closing credits note thanks to the real Lana Tisdal, who must have aided the producers in telling the story. Again, this shows great courage; many might have chosen to distance themselves from such an experience, but Tisdal saw the need for this story to be told and put herself in a possibly unflattering light to do so.

Boys Don't Cry is a deeply disturbing look at the unfriendly way in which sexual irregularity is seen by a large portion of the public; originally rated NC-17, it was reportedly cut to achieve a tamer and more revenue-producing R rating. Still, potential viewers should note, it does contain graphic sexuality and brutality, and is not for the squeamish. Whatever one's feelings may be on the subject matter, however, there is no doubt that Swank and Sevigny (who were both nominated for Oscars for their astounding, honest acting), with the help of Peirce, Bienen, and their supporting cast, have approached this subject with truth and respect. ****½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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