Boys Don't Cry
in the back of a pickup truck, Brandon Teena whoops and yells, a big smile on
his face. The truck bucks and spins past a crowd of kids drinking on the
sidelines. When Brandon loses his balance, he hits the muddy ground and bounces,
then gets up and goes again. Bruised and dirty as he might be, Brandon's happy
to be here. He's drinking beer with the guys and impressing the girls. He's
doing what you're supposed to do when you're a boy. Or so he thinks.
the charismatic protagonist in Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, Brandon
embodies the ongoing dilemma of masculine identity. This dilemma is exacerbated
by the fact that, when you see him riding that pickup truck, some fifteen
minutes into the film, you already know that 18-year-old Brandon's efforts to
act like a boy are complicated by the fact that he is, biologically speaking, a
girl, born Teena Brandon. Based on a true story and cowritten by Peirce and Andy
Bienen, the movie opens with Teena (Hilary Swank, in a heartbreakingly genuine
performance) checking herself out in the mirror, taping down her breasts and
donning jeans and a cowboy hat, in preparation for an evening at the roller
rink. She knows she's courting danger, given that she's a known troublemaker
(car thief) in her hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, not to mention that homophobic
attacks are local sport, but she can't help herself. She knows what she wants,
to live as a boy, fall in love with a girl, and live happily ever after.
and convincingly transformed, Brandon does meet a girl at the roller rink. But
he's found out by the girl's male friends, who, incensed and afraid, chase
Brandon to the trailer where he's staying with his best friend, Lonny (Matt
McGrath). Being gay himself, Lonny knows something about bashing and the risks
of performance that really aren't worth taking. When the boys start throwing
shit through the windows, Lonny tells Brandon he needs to face facts: he's a
girl, and no one's going to let him be anything else.
leaves town soon after, sort of by accident. Defending a girl he meets in a bar,
Candace (Alicia Goranson), he gets in a fight with some locals, takes off in a
hurry, and finds himself in an alley with a couple of seeming tough guys, John
(Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III). They think he's cool for
defending their friend Candace, so they offer him a ride to some party out in
Falls City, a night's drive away. The next morning, waking at Candace's house,
Brandon is proud of his shiner and happy to be accepted for what he sees in
himself. He decides to stay.
Brandon meets John's ex, Lana (the ever generous and superb Chloe Sevigny), he
starts to believe his own fantasy. In his bedroom at Candace's, he gets ready
for a night out with the kids. Posing again in front of the mirror, he smiles:
should he wear a sock or dildo? Bangs mussed or combed? Thrilled by his passing,
he falls a little in love with the act and with the reality that he finally sees
within his reach. Everyone invites Brandon into their lives, the guys, Lana, her
friend Kate (Allison Folland), and Lana's mom (Jeanetta Arnette). They're as
impressed by his determination and beauty, his gentleness and daring, as Brandon
seems to be. Their trust invites yours. It hardly seems a suspension of
disbelief to see Brandon as he sees himself.
film's approach is a risky one. Rather than speculating about who knew what
when, or pathologizing Brandon's performance like a Jerry Springer episode, the
film asks you to understand both his wish to be himself and his new family's
willingness to share the illusion. When Brandon's past finally does catch up
with him -- he's busted for writing bad checks, then exposed as wanted for grand
theft auto back in Lincoln, and revealed as a girl -- Lana is understandably
bewildered, less by the fact (which she may have guessed) than by the rage shown
by her mother and friends. Lana chooses to hold onto the relationship and the
faith it signifies: she loves Brandon, her man. But the guys feel betrayed by
their own socializing: what does it say about them, that they would believe,
like, and even feel attracted to a girl posing as a boy? To fix the situation,
to reestablish the familiar order of gender and power, they rape Teena and tell
her to keep quiet.
the rape is violent: they batter Teena to the point that she must see a doctor,
which leads to a trip to the sheriff's office. And so another truth comes out.
Brandon must confess his crime -- that he has a vagina -- at the same time that
he narrates the rape for the cops. John and Tom are undone, and they can only
destroy the person who represents their loss of self-assurance, their questions
tragedy is tremendous. But the film never makes it seem freaky or startling, or
even deviant. In fact, the great achievement of Boys Don't Cry is its
respect for all its characters and situations. Small-town Nebraska has never
looked so seductive as it does through Brandon's eyes (and Jim Denault's
ravishing, hyper-real cinematography): time lapse footage makes the sky seem
alive and watchful, while the cramped trailer park interiors and nighttime
waterside where Lana and Brandon hang out are pulsing with color and
possibility. It's tempting to see their love as transcendent, but it's more
confused and fervent than that. They share an experience that's more solid than
the world around them, less fraught with distrust and fear. The film argues that
they can see each other more clearly than their class and community might seem
film contextualizes Brandon and Lana instead of trying to explain their actions.
It lets you see how they saw themselves, how they desired themselves into
existence. And it ends up posing precisely the questions that face Brandon and
his friends: What does it mean to be a man? To want a man? How does violence
become a thinkable response to the chaos and frustration of daily life? What is
transgression? Who is threatened and why? How do you know who you are?
questions seem to be in the mass cultural air recently. They're the same ones
raised by Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, Sam Mendes' American Beauty,
Susan Faludi's book, Stiffed, David Fincher's Fight Club,
and Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader's Bringing Out The Dead. Men
feeling betrayed and cheated and desperate make compelling subjects, no doubt.
But gender roles and sexual desires were never so fixed as they might seem to
those tending toward nostalgia (though the fretting certainly seems speeded up).
Boys Don't Cry imagines multiple, unresolvable perspectives. Peirce's
movie doesn't produce answers so much as it complicates the process of asking.
It doesn't even pretend that it delivers the truth about Brandon Teena. It
offers instead a mix of stories, brief glimpses of truth. They shimmer like
Brandon against Falls City's deep blue twilight sky, unfixed and seductive.
Click here to read the interview with Kimberly Peirce.