"Boys Don't Cry" is a harsh and penetrating study of heartland America,
powerful enough to earn comparison with "At Close Range" and "The Onion
Field", two brilliant deliberately messy films about emotional devastation.
Its early scenes inspire impatience -- they don't seem to be going anywhere,
and nothing is happening. Then we realise that's the point, and that is
The film tells the true story of Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank), a guy from
Nebraska who was actually a girl named Teena Brandon in drag. This is not
someone merely uncomfortable with his real gender; he's a rolling stone in
every respect, moving from town to town, mixing with different gangs,
constantly getting into fights and trouble with the law. He's also forced to
move on whenever people discover he's not a real 'he', because people are
always enraged by the deception.
Near the beginning of the movie, Brandon becomes determined to find stability
among a band of white trash buddies from Falls City, because he falls in love
at first sight with one of their number, the beautiful Lana (Chlöe Sevigny).
Most of this group are sad, lonely people with no prospects, who try to
distract themselves into thinking they're doing something with their lives by
filling their nights with loud, boozy bravado. Lana doesn't do anything more
purposeful, but she is a quieter, more peaceful creature, who seems more
aware of the rut she's in. Brandon is a meek, reserved presence as well, and
he and Lana get involved in private moments that are quiet enough to allow
them to talk. Finally they've each found someone to discuss their dreams with.
Does Lana know that Brandon is really a girl? Probably not, although when she
finds out, it doesn't seem to matter to her, and she does her best to keep
the fact from her pals. She's in love, and doesn't want to see the beauty of
that crushed, even though it's inevitable that it will be, considering the
terrible world that she inhabits. We can tell that Lana's ex-boyfriend John
(Peter Sarsgaard), a jealous bully with violent mood swings, will eventually
find out about Brandon's secret, and of course there will then be tragic
That's what "Boys Don't Cry" is about -- how it's impossible to lead lives of
peace, meaning or value in an atmosphere like the one the film is set in.
Everyone grows up miserable and confused, and then gets punished for being
that way. Brandon had no option but to live a lie, Lana couldn't help but
loving him, and John did not choose to be brought up in an environment of
bigotry and rage... but their fates have been sealed at birth, and there can
be no happy endings.
The actors give this startling intimacy. Nobody seems to be playing to the
camera -- they simply live in their characters' shoes, in the midst of a
meandering story structure, and then find themselves stuck, as things spiral
out of control. No other film I've seen has made the problems of white trash
Americans so real to me. This is not one of those movies where some slutty
single mom goes across country to find herself, and the audience couldn't
care less. It is desperate, gritty and animalistic, and by its end there were
tears in my eyes, because all over America people are living and dying like
this, and they are trapped, and will be for a long time to come.
Copyright © 2000 UK Critic