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*** 1/2 Stars
(US 1999) Rated R

Hilary Swank, Chloë Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton III

Directed by Kimberly Peirce

Writing credits: Kimberly Peirce, Andy Bienen

Fox Searchlight Pictures * 116 minutes

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.

brandon_teena.jpg - 7280 BytesBrandon 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 International).

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.

Brandon.jpg - 9885 BytesHilary 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.

boys.jpg - 16870 BytesChloë 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.

John.jpg - 8131 BytesThe 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

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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.

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