Boys Don’t Cry
Directed by Kimberly Peirce
Starring Hillary Swank
One of the best things about Boys Don’t Cry is what it isn’t. It is not a standard, lifeless bio-pic, it is not a condescending preach piece full of “can’t we all just get along” sentiments, nor is it a typical Hollywood formula film that relies on hackneyed, predictable devices to move the thin plot. The film succeeds as a high tragedy — a dramatic form rarely attempted anymore. The story follows many of the plot devices of classics like Othello and Oedipus Rex . We have the flawed hero, the villain who begins the piece as the hero’s friend, and we have a hero unable to make the right choices in order to escape his bloody destiny.
The story of Teena Brandon, played flawlessly by Hillary Swank, opens with her first attempt as living as a boy. She gets a short haircut, stuffs a pair of socks in her jeans, and assumes the name Brandon Teena. She quickly finds that she is accepted as a male. Brandon can’t seem to stay out of trouble, and soon has more than he can handle in a bar fight. He is rescued by John, who along with Candace (Alicia Goranson, who played Becky on TV’s Roseanne ) and Tom, invites Brandon to a party in Falls City, Nebraska. With no friends, and longing to fit in, Brandon tags along. Once in Falls City, Brandon is accepted as one of the gang, something he’s been searching for all of his life. He also discovers JohnÕs girlfriend, Lana, who he cannot resist. Early in the first act, the seeds of doom are sown. It is easy to understand why Lana falls in love with Brandon. He is easily the nicest boy she’s ever met. He is a far cry from the overly macho redneck boys she has available in Falls City. Before long, they act on the feelings they have for each other in a quite erotic sex scene in which the audience is left to wonder if Lana knows Brandon’s secret, and if so, does she understand what it is she knows? Soon, Brandon’s past catches up with him, and he finds himself in the Falls City Jail. Lana bails him out, but his secret is now out of the bag. Upon returning to Lana’s house, John and Tom corner Brandon in front of Candace and Lana and strip his pants off to remove any doubt of gender. Following this humiliation, John and Tom abduct Teena and beat and rape her. After she goes to the police, Lana and Teena make plans to leave town together. Those plans are interrupted by John and Tom, who force Lana into their car and they head off for a final confrontation with Teena. In a short, chaotic scene, Candace is shot trying to protect Teena, and Teena is shot and stabbed to death in front of Lana.
Director Kimberly Peirce shows an uncanny knack of avoiding plot cliches, and instead treats the audience to a wonderful movie about horrific events. She chooses to tell Teena Brandon’s story as a tragic romance when conventional Hollywood wisdom would tell it either as a courtroom drama about the killers, telling the story through flashbacks, or as a straight biography pumped full of grand speeches about accepting those different from us, probably again ending with a courtroom scene, a la Philadelphia . Peirce also begins the movie the same night Teena goes to Falls City. There is no explanation given for her sexual identity problems, nor is there any real glimpse into her past or attempt to explain her problem. Instead, the only thing the audience knows that the characters in Falls City don’t is in regards to TeenaÕs genitalia. Another small, intriguing point is that we are never quite certain what exactly Lana knows about Brandon. We get the feeling she knows, but either can’t come to grips with it or is possibly a latent lesbian, or maybe love truly is blind. Peirce leaves that up to the audience to decide. Kimberly Peirce creates such rich characters, not just the leads, played stunningly by Hillary Swank and Chloe Sevigny, who is making quite a name for herself playing really gritty roles. The chemistry between Swank and Sevingy is really remarkable, and the whole film hinges much more on believing their love for each other than believing Brandon Teena is a boy. Peter Sarsgaard is really creepy as Teena’s killer. He is so likable in the first part of the movie, but as the story progresses, we see the warning signs of the violent creature lurking inside, leading up to the horrific climax. Boys Don’t Cry is so magnificently constructed that by the time Teena Brandon is murdered, you feel as if someone you know has been killed. You leave the film in a state of mourning.
The DVD of Boys Don’t Cry is presented in pristine anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1). The disc looks much better than the print of the movie I first saw. The film looks beautiful. Peirce’s palette of cool colors is faithfully reproduced. The disc is recorded in crisp 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Surround. The disc contains some of the extras that have become nearly as important as the film to DVD enthusiasts. The disc has trailers, a short, uninteresting “Making of” featurette, and a feature length audio commentary by director Kimberly Peirce. Peirce’s commentary is not a strong point for the DVD — her commentary is suprisingly vapid. I would have much rather have heard from Hillary Swank and Chloe Sevigny, or at least heard about them. Peirce’s commentary addresses little about her actors, which is odd, considering the film is very much an actors’ piece. What we get are some generic tales about the difficulties of making a low budget film and lots of pop psychology theories concerning Teena Brandon. The best thing to do is watch the disc with the audio on track A.