Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 3/12/04 with Additional Edits.
In 1998 America, homosexuality was accepted in some parts of the U.S., notably the east and west coast. In Middle America, it was a different kind of story. That year, a Wyoming student named Matthew Shepard was killed by a group of hooligans in Laramie, Wyoming, notably because he was gay and thus, became a martyr for gay rights. Homophobia is a subject not many would like to go into and it’s a controversial subject that is hard to tackle. In 1999, a film about homophobia came from the story about a young woman named Teena Brandon who disguised herself as a man in Nebraska. Changing her name to Brandon Teena, the woman was eventually raped and killed in 1993 because of her subversive, sexual identity. Helming that subject was a new filmmaker who wouldn’t just open more doors for other fellow female filmmakers but also would churn out one of the decade’s most powerful films to date in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry.
Based on the accounts of Teena Brandon’s death, Peirce and co-screenwriter Andy Bienen takes the story of a young woman who is yearning to be different in a landscape where being different at the time was unacceptable. With Peirce in her feature-length directorial debut, Boys Don’t Cry is probably one of the greatest features ever made by a first-time director. Leading the pack as Teena Brandon is Hilary Swank in a tour-de-force performance that would garner the Oscar for Best Actress. While most films about victims tend to make them into martyrs, Peirce doesn’t descend that territory by making stories of human beings at their best and worst at a time when the world wasn’t watching. With a cast that includes Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendon Sexton Jr., Alicia Goranson, Alison Folland, Matt McGrath, and Jeanetta Arnette, Boys Don’t Cry is clearly one of the greatest yet most eerie films of the 1990s.
The film begins in 1990 as 20-year old Teena Brandon gets a haircut to look like a man with help from her friend Lonny (Matt McGrath) in Lincoln, Nebraska. Teena decides to hit on some ladies by pretending to be a guy named Bailey and it worked when she did upsetting some guys. Lonny doesn’t like what she does as he kicks her out of his trailer as she goes for a drink. Teena then meets a young woman named Candace (Alicia Goranson) and her friend, an ex-convicted hooligan named John Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard) as he helped Teena in a barroom brawl. Teena introduces himself as Brandon Teena to Candace and John as they meet with John’s pal Tom (Brendan Sexton Jr.) as they ride all the way to Falls City, Nebraska.
Brandon wakes up as she calls Lonny, who warns her about the place, as she needed to go home for a trial due to the brawl she started. Instead, she decides to stay after meeting Kate (Alison Folland) and John’s ex-girlfriend Lana (Chloe Sevigny). Brandon immediately falls for Lana after she, Kate, and Candace sing karaoke as she joins them, Tom, and John for some midwestern fun on bumper skiing. Brandon decides to live with Lana, who is a single mother with a baby, as she continues to pursue Lana as she met her one night while getting some beer in which Brandon got, along with tampons that she stole. She meets Lana’s mother (Jeanetta Arnette) as Lana said, she hates her life but Brandon doesn’t mind, as she just wants to see her. The next day, Brandon decides to go see Lana again as she meets up with the gang as she drinks with John for a bit as he treats her like one of the guys. John introduces Brandon to his daughter April (Stephanie Sechrist) as Brandon takes photos of Lana and her mom, to Lana’s disgust while April accidentally wets herself on John.
Later in the night, the gang goes for a drive as Brandon is challenged by three girls to a race in which Brandon wins but gets caught by the police as he only got a ticket. John wasn’t happy since he was afraid that he might get convicted as he leaves everyone but Lana and Kate in the middle of the night. Tom shows Brandon his scars that he got at prison that he and John had when they would simply cut themselves. Tom wants Brandon to do it but he said no but Tom was just joking. Later in the day, Brandon receives a court summon to go back to Lincoln for a trial date where he sees Lana as he tells he has to go back to see his sister. Brandon returns to Lincoln briefly to speak to Lonny as he tells her that homos aren’t treated very well in Falls City. Brandon skips the trial date to be with Lana as they make out.
Brandon hangs out the ladies as John and Tom return from Omaha for a job where John learned that Lana is going out with Brandon. John secretly is upset but wonders why Brandon is so different as Brandon’s traffic violation catches up with him as a cop named Brian (Rob Campbell) reveals his past records of violations and forgeries and goes to jail. Candace then learns the truth as Lana frees Brandon from jail, as Brandon tries to tell her the truth about herself but Lana doesn’t care. John then finds the truth about who Brandon is from Candace as he goes further on, as he is upset at what Brandon is. Lana returns home as her mother and friends confront her as Brandon also shows up as she is forced to reveal herself by John and Tom. Brian interrogates Lana and later Brandon as she is forced to reveal the beatings and rape from John and Tom later on. Lana realizes she doesn’t care what Brandon is that would lead to tragedy.
The story of Boys Don’t Cry is clearly in many parallels, a classic Shakespearian tragedy since it was based on the true accounts of what happened to Teena Brandon. The screenplay by director Kimberly Peirce and co-writer Andy Bienen definitely plays up to the dramatic structure of the film without being too Hollywood or too low budget. The film’s script strengthens up Peirce’s sprawling direction as she humanizes the characters, including villains while not making Teena Brandon into a martyr because Teena herself, is a complete screw up with her past criminal records and such. The film’s symbolic look of fast cars, clouds, and the earth represents the world around Falls City, Idaho with an evocative, bleak look of Middle American suburbia captured perfectly by cinematographer Jim Denault. Even Nathan Larson’s atmospheric score sets the tone for the film’s ethereal setting while the music ranging from country, soul, punk, and rock from Nathan Larson (doing the Cure’s classic Boys Don’t Cry), Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Isley Brothers, X, the Dictators, and many more plays up to the rural landscape of Nebraska.
The genius of the film really goes to Kimberly Peirce. While the film is mostly about the life of Teena Brandon, Pierce also examines the rural lifestyle of Middle America. A lifestyle that is filled with recklessness and depression that almost seems inescapable. So much for the American Dream. Peirce proves that is false as the bleakness of Middle America is shown where people pretty much go to bars, get drunk, go into fights and such while doing mindless activities like bump skiing, chomp on whipped cream, and getting high. Even as some of the characters want to get out, they really couldn’t since it’s also a state of mind. Notably in Sarsgaard’s character of John Lotter, whose parenting skills are very poor as he feeds his daughter with a sip of beer that examines the sadness of Middle American suburbia.
Finally there’s the film cast that is amazing in its smaller and leading performances. While the roles played by Rob Campbell and Alison Folland are small but utilized excellently, the roles of Alicia Goranson, as Candace and Matt McGrath’s role of Lonny are wonderful in their performances. Jeanetta Arnette is brilliant as Lana’s mother who just doesn’t play a surrogate mother for Brandon but for the cast while bring a complexity as a loose woman who also loves the people around her. Brendan Sexton Jr. is excellent as Tom as he brings a bit of humanity into his performance while showing the pain he went through in prison in a scene with Hilary Swank while his character was the only one that could bring any kind of control to John. Chloe Sevigny is spellbinding in her Oscar-nominated performance as Lana. Sevigny not only brings an element of beauty but depth into her bleak role as a young woman desperate to get out of her tumultuous lifestyle. This is by far one of Sevigny’s best performances.
Then there are the film’s two greatest performances. First is Peter Sarsgaard in a breakthrough performance as John Lotter. Sarsgaard’s portrayal is filled with layers as he plays the character with a dose of humanity rather than some villainous stereotype. Sarsgaard at times starts out as loveable to the people around him while he could snap just like that. By the third act, we see the ignorance in his character that is so believable; you almost want to hate him for what he does. The second and last notable performance is Hilary Swank as Teena Brandon. At times, it’s hard to believe that she’s playing a woman who pretends to be a man. Swank uses her charm and wit to seduce the audience while in the more brutal scenes in the third act; she plays up to her sympathy in pain. Swank makes sure her character doesn’t come out a martyr as she knows Teena Brandon was a screw up and plays up to the fact that she’s a screw up. Swank even carries great chemistry in her scenes with Sevigny, Sarsgaard, and the rest of the cast in a performance that truly garnered the Academy Award for Best Actress.
While it’s not an easy film to watch due to its graphic context and violence, Boys Don’t Cry remains a seminal masterpiece from Kimberly Peirce. With chilling performances from Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny, and Peter Sarsgaard, the film plays up to the real tragic accounts of Teena Brandon without over-dramatizing the story. Though Swank was the one remembered most about the film, the real star is Peirce with her symbolic, psychological approach in directing. Whether or not she’ll ever surpass this film, she did make one of the best independent films of the 1990s but also a film that helped opened more doors for not just women filmmakers but also the subject of homosexuality. In the end, Boys Don’t Cry is a brilliant, modern-day tragic story on the subject of homophobia
(C) thevoid99 2010