On occasion, a movie that’s highly uncomfortable to watch will also prove itself to be quite rewarding. Such is the case with Boys Don’t Cry, during which you know right away how things are gonna go down. No happy endings shall be found in this true story, but there are a few possible ways to watch this film. Obviously, this is a story of ill-fated freedom (and ill-fated love/sex), for the protagonist was born a female yet chooses to live as a male with (to put it mildly) disastrous results. This is also a tale of the philosophical malaise that necessarily arrives while blossoming into adulthood and feeling entirely suffocated while trapped in a small town existence. Think of it as existential cockblock, if you will, with only a vague sense of impending doom to keep your mind occupied while mulling over the local pastimes: to drink, smoke, and fuck. As one would expect, things are vastly more complicated for a biological female who, at least temporarily, passes as a male.
Boys Don’t Cry stars Hilary Swank—previously known only to audiences as The Next Karate Kid and one of Ian Zierling’s revolving-door girlfriends on “Beverly Hills, 90210”—who gives a breakthrough performance as Brandon Teena. Instead of overdoing the masculine aspects of the character, Swank appears androgynous and quite nearly becomes a blank screen, upon which all other characters project their own opinions and biases. When we first encounter Brandon Teena (born Teena Brandon), he is already living an out-of-control life of petty thievery and bounced checks in Lincoln, Nebraska. His days are numbered in this town, and unable to afford or access a sex-change operation, Brandon begins to look elsewhere. While bar-hopping, Brandon catches the eye of Candace (Alicia Goranson), who confesses the common desire of wanting to change her name. Brandon, who can easily empathize with this plight, encourages the change: “Sometimes, it helps.” Candace, like most girls, finds Brandon to be refreshingly sweet and chivalric, at least, compared to the usual sort of thugs she’s always known. Brandon starts hanging out with Candance and her buddies, John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III) and soon tags along to Falls City. Shortly thereafter, Lana (Chloë Sevigny) enters the picture, and Brandon is smitten. Lana’s got a pretty fucked up life—her alcoholic mother (Jeannetta Arnette) is dating John, who is only slightly older than Lana—and she’s looking for escapism where she can get it. So, when Brandon actually treats Lana respectfully, she realizes that she’s never been treated this well and soon falls for his tender ways. Of course, Brandon has the upper hand here as an actual female who, for the most part, knows what a girl’s needs really are. Meanwhile, the highly volatile John grows jealous of this relationship, and he cannot understand why Lana would want to date such a puny little punk. Soon, quite literally, all is revealed, which is followed by the tragic and brutal rape of Brandon, who then makes a vain attempt to get help from law enforcement. Angered by this final “betrayal,” John and Tom then take their final action against Brandon.
Director Kimberly Peirce presents a very matter-of-fact treatment of the story and resists the urge to put Brandon up on a pedestal. After all, Brandon isn’t exactly a law-abiding citizen, nor is he a gay rights crusader but merely a selfish individual who deceives many people in the pursuit of living as a man. But since Brandon doesn’t consider himself a lesbian woman but a heterosexual man born in a woman’s body, that is how Brandon is presented by Pierce, who chooses also not to sensationalize matters. With stark cinematography, Pierce allows the performances to carry the film, which wouldn’t be nearly as acclaimed without the convincing performance of HIlary Swank or the presence of indie goddess Chloë Sevigny. As Lana, Sevigny initially portrays a girl who hates her life but never had the initiative to do anything about it, but Brandon inspires Lana to change these circumstances. While Swank gives an undoubtedly first-rate performance, the character of Brandon doesn’t do much changing or experience any real growth in the length of the film. In contrast, Lana changes from a moody, sullen, go-nowhere girl to a dreamer who is motivated, even after Brandon’s death, to move away from the small town.
While Brandon’s motivations throughout the film are quite clear, however, much ambiguity can be found in the actions of the other main characters. Personally, I find it pretty hard to believe that Lana never suspected Brandon’s true identity as a female. Even after John and Tom pull down Brandon’s pants and force Lana to look, Lana still yells, “Leave him alone!” So, when confronted with the truth, she refuses to acknowledge Brandon as a female and chooses to remain in a state of delusion. I also find it rather perplexing that Lana never became angry at Brandon’s betrayal. After all, he had lied to her all along, especially when having sex with her. Perhaps Lana was just too elated at the idea of a perfect boyfriend and decided to fool herself all along, or, perhaps Lana saw Brandon as the only option eventually escape small-town hell.
As for the reprehensible actions of John, it’s difficult to tell whether he was acting entirely through his homophobia or other complicating factors, including his anger at the ongoing deception and his insanely jealous streak. In all likelihood, a combination of all three led to the rape and murder, but even though John also calls Lana a “dyke,” he does step in to save her from being shot by Tom, so I tend to think jealousy is his main motivator in addition to the other factors. While Tom’s actions are not justified in any sense, Pierce does not gloss over Brandon’s mistakes either. After all, Brandon really did do something pretty stupid by “going undercover” and posing as a boy. Perhaps he thought there were no other realistic options (especially being stuck in a rural area), but there was always an inevitability hanging over him, and it was never a case of whether but when the truth would rear its unforgiving head. Still, the events portrayed in the film are entirely tragic and unforgettable, as well as something of a cautionary tale for those who inhabit the internet age, in which reinventing one’s self comes all too easily.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.