Bright Lights Film Journal

Hell in the Heartland: <em>Boys Don’t Cry</em>

These boys do, and so do the girls

The credits for Boys Don’t Cry list “Killer Films” as one of the production companies, and that’s as apt a description of this powerful film as any. Based on the short unhappy life of the now notorious “sexual misfit” Brandon Teena – aka Teena Renae Brandon of Lincoln, Nebraska – this murder melodrama in the Badlands mode establishes first-time director Kimberly Peirce as a major talent. Peirce spent five years on research and interviews, and that immersion pays off handsomely in finely nuanced performances and an unerringly real sense of the horrors that lie hidden in the heartland.

For those who don’t know, Teena Renae Brandon (1973-1992) was born a girl but saw herself increasingly as a boy – not as a dyke who loved women but as a heterosexual male. And her body was apparently sufficiently cooperative to allow her to convince most of those she met, including a string of lovesick girlfriends, that she was who she said she was: Brandon Teena. Inevitably consigned by her renegade status to a marginal crowd of ex-cons, pool hall habitués, factory girls, and burned-out white trash in the dreary burg of Twin Falls, Nebraska, Brandon was eventually exposed as Teena, an act that triggered her brutal rape and murder by two cons who were part of the crowd she ran with. (One of the killers is on death row; the other is serving consecutive life sentences.)

Boys Don’t Cry is a fascinating expansion of what has all the earmarks of a kinky tabloid tale. It adds a kind of downbeat-poetic spin to what we saw in the excellent documentary The Brandon Teena Story. The latter film was all about reconstructing a life that not only went mostly unrecorded and unobserved, but was problematic from the gate, since Brandon was branded (by herself and others) with a dizzying array of names and identities – faggot, dyke, boy, girl, hermaphrodite. Since its subject was dead and left little record of herself, the documentary used mostly other people’s memories and such prosaic sources as court records and medical transcripts to make sense of a mysterious and tragic life. Boys Don’t Cry’s fictionalized re-creation of Brandon in close-up makes the documentary’s word flesh.

Hilary Swank (late of Beverly Hills 90210) brilliantly embodies this character as an unsettling pastiche of the all-American boy. Her Brandon is gentle and engaging in an almost “girlish” way, comfortable with and charismatic to women, but drawn to the look – sports shirts and wrangler jeans – and rituals of men. She drinks, carouses, picks fights and picks up girls, and even wears the badges of male violence – a black eye she gets early in the film – with pride. She wants masculine privilege, and in a simple, self-deluded way imagines the world will accede to her wish and never question the slight strangeness she exudes, the not-quite-right look of someone with a secret.

But the male world she desperately identifies with and wants to be part of is not a pretty place, as we see early in the film when Brandon’s attacked by a bunch of thugs who scream “faggot!” at her, and later when she’s assaulted by a fat middle-aged cracker trying to move in on her date. Her friendship with the two ex-cons John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III) pull her deeper into the dubious world of unexamined machismo, and shows the gulf between Brandon’s cheery fantasy of being an “All-American guy” and the lethal reality. John and Tom represent the logical dead end of her aspirations – they’re drunken, violent abusers who father kids they abandon, make games out of cutting their own flesh, and meet a lie with murder.

This loose-knit “family” – Brandon, John, and Tom – is completed by Candace (Alicia Goranson), who lets Brandon stay with her and pays dearly for it, and Lana (Chloe Sevigny), who starts as John’s girlfriend and ends as Brandon’s. They’re all social castoffs living rootless lives waiting for Friday night karaoke, “bumper-skiing,” and driving endlessly through the dusty fields surrounding Twin Falls. They’re ridiculed as “wall people” – near-vagrants who hang out against the wall of an all-night market waiting for something to happen. Brandon’s appearance energizes them and gives them a sense of purpose and possibility beyond the wall.

But John and Tom are unpredictable – one minute embracing Brandon, the next playing mind games and threatening violence. Brandon and Lana have the only sweet moments in the film, and they’re fleeting encounters. Their love scenes suggest the realization of the possibilities of a personality in transition, the pleasures of living by internal, not social, definitions. Lana’s acceptance of Brandon as Teena resonates through the film, even as if fails to save Brandon.

Director Peirce manages to avoid the luridness the story implies while also being direct and unapologetic in her treatment of this challenging character. She balances Brandon’s swagger and seemingly uncrackable optimism with quietly devastating moments when Brandon is forced to acknowledge Teena – desperately binding her breasts, checking her underwear, nervously stuffing socks down her pants, practicing boy smiles and boy leers in the mirror.

Acting credits are first-rate throughout, with Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton almost too credible as the killers, alternately scary and seductive. Alicia Goranson, best remembered as Becky in the Roseanne TV show, nicely sketches in the doomed Candace, and Chloe Sevigny, who was the only good thing in Larry Clark’s creepy Kids, entrances as Lana. But Swank holds the film together with her riveting combination of humor, pathos, and pain.