Much has been said of late of the plight of
the American Male. From Susan Faludi's ubiquitous new book, STIFFED,
to "Cosmo-for-men" performance anxiety rags like Men's Health,
to the female hysteria surrounding smooth-faced young actors (focusing
primarily on, but not limited to, Leonardo DiCaprio), men seem to wonder
just what really is expected of them. Faludi points specifically to the
consumerist culture as the culprit, but the fact remains that men are
confused about many things, not the least of which is determining exactly
what women want.
Brandon Teena knew what women want, or at least what the women in Falls
City, Nebraska, circa 1993 wanted. They wanted a guy who was sweet, gentle,
thoughtful, understanding, empathetic, romantic, and who would perform
oral sex on them without asking anything in return. Brandon was just that
guy. There was only one problem: Brandon was a girl. Not a lesbian, but
a girl who saw herself as a guy trapped in a girl's body.
What you are about to read is true.
Teena, whose birth name was Teena Brandon, was originally from Lincoln,
Nebraska, and moved to nearby Humboldt in 1994, after beginning to live
full-time as a man in preparation for eventual sex-change surgery. Brandon
passed easily as a man in Humboldt, but was discovered to be biologically
and legally female by local police following his arrest on a misdemeanor
check forgery charge two weeks prior to his slaying. Police publicly released
this information to the local newspaper, the Falls City Journal. One week
later, on Christmas Day 1994, Brandon was raped and assaulted at a Christmas
party by two men, whom he identified to local police as Tom Nissen and
John Lotter, despite the fact that they had threatened to kill him if
he reported the incident to the police. (source: FTM
Two weeks later, Brandon was murdered.
BOYS DON'T CRY is a dramatization of those months prior to Brandon Teena's
murder. The film opens with Teena Brandon's friend Lonny cutting her hair
short and advising her on how to place a rolled-up sock in her crotch
in preparation for living as a man. As portrayed in a revelatory performance
by Hilary Swank, Teena, now Brandon, bubbles over with joy at her new,
"true" identity. We then see just how easily the androgynous, sweet, sensitive
Brandon charms the girls -- a fact which infuriates the local rednecks,
and Brandon moves on to Falls City. Here, he joins a motley group of white
trash, consisting of single mother Candace (Alicia Goranson, late of TV's
Roseanne), her friends Kate and Lana (Chloë Sevigny of THE
LAST DAYS OF DISCO), Lana's mother, and ex-cons John Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard)
and Tom Nissen (Brendan Sexton III). He becomes smitten with Lana, who
incredibly, responds to his sweet thoughtfulness -- such a contrast to
Lotter's malevolent, macho jerkiness.
In Falls City, life consists of going nowhere slowly -- hanging out at
the local bar, getting blotto on one substance or another, not all of
them legal; going to work at the local spinach packing plant, and various
displays of macho bravado, including getting into bar fights with people
twice your size and being dragged in back of a truck. Brandon joins in
the latter with a gutsiness that belies his slight frame and delicate
features, and quickly becomes a friend and mascot, even to the hardened
John and Tom. Indeed, Brandon knows how fully he's "joined the club",
when he looks at his reflection in a mirror and says, with true self-knowledge,
"I'm an a**hole."
A speeding ticket and subsequent blurb in the local paper reveals Brandon's
ruse, enraging the macho ex-cons John and Tom at having been conned. In
a harrowing, but never gratuitous series of scenes involving Brandon's
forced strip-humiliation at the hands of the two men, subsequent rape,
and murder, the theme of just who is truly sexually confused in this group
rings loud and clear.
The Falls City of BOYS DON'T CRY (shot in the outskirts of Dallas) is
reminiscent of the vaguely West Texas-looking locales from a generation
of "white trash in the heartland" flicks, including IN COLD BLOOD, THE
EXECUTIONER'S SONG, BADLANDS, and LITTLE BOY BLUE; with its young denizens
serving as the angry flip side of DAZED AND CONFUSED's affable slackers.
The photography beautifully reflects the hopelessness of these towns,
save for a tendency to overuse the technique of speeding up the film for
purely visual effect purposes.
Swank, whose only major film appearance prior to this was in THE NEXT
KARATE KID, gives a powerhouse of a performance as Brandon. Looking somewhat
like a cross between a prettier Sandra Bernhardt and the young Ralph Macchio,
she astonishingly manages the feat of portraying not merely a girl dressed
up as a guy (a la Joyce Hyser in cable stalwart JUST ONE OF THE GUYS),
but a girl who truly feels that she is in actuality a boy trapped in a
woman's body. She moves like a guy, she walks like a guy, she has chapped
lips like a guy, she smokes like a guy. The contrast between her slight
build and bravado compensates for the unlikelihood of "tough guys" Lotter
and Nissen believing her ruse.
At times, the delicacy of Swank's features, a feminine tendency to smile
too easily and need acceptance too much, makes the viewer remember that
Brandon is a she. Yet in a poignant scene in which Brandon's body betrays
him by performing its female functions, Swank conveys her frustration
with her body's refusal to cooperate with her true will.
Sevigny, an actress so laid back as to often appear comatose, adequately
conveys the despair behind a tough girl exterior used to cope with an
existence going nowhere. Her Lana responds to Brandon because he is the
only "male" around who isn't a cretin. Yet the performance is tentative,
and we are never quite sure why she continues to love Brandon even after
his true identity and gender is exposed.
other performances are fine, particularly Peter Sarsgaard as John Lotter.
While Lotter's general demeanor is that of a redneck loser, a certain
somethingin Sarsgaard's eyes hints at an inner life that's more than meets
the eye -- a life that if we understood it, would give us a hint at why
he reacts so strongly to discovering Brandon's true gender.
The largely over-65 audience at the screening I attended was clearly not
prepared for the level of sexuality in this film; I'm not sure they had
any idea of what they were taking on in viewing this film. BOYS DON'T
CRY can hardly be called entertaining, but it is a film that forces us
to confront issues of gender, truth, and love.
- Jill Cozzi
Read Gabriel's review of BOYS DON'T CRY