"Boys Don't Cry"

Director Kimberly Peirce discusses the hazards of low-budget filmmaking and the intricacies of bringing this heartland tragedy to the screen.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published August 8, 2000 5:04PM (EDT)

"Boys Don't Cry"
Directed by Kimberly Peirce
Starring Hilary Swank, Chlok Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III
20th Century Fox; widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Director's commentary, featurette, trailers

Maybe this is heresy, but I think Hilary Swank pretty much looks like a girl throughout "Boys Don't Cry." Mind you, that does nothing to detract from the power of this sensitively realized heartland tragedy, which won an Oscar for Swank and announced the arrival of a major directing talent in Kimberly Peirce. The muted, almost minimalist visual style adopted by Peirce and cinematographer Jim Denault for this tale of love and death in Nebraska comes through beautifully on the DVD transfer, but the best reasons to see "Boys Don't Cry" remain the performances of Swank and Chlok Sevigny, whose scenes together have an unfakable electricity.

As scripted by Peirce and Andy Bienen, "Boys Don't Cry" has an understanding of the essential ambiguity of love -- and of all human experience -- that for me is the hallmark of real art. Sevigny's Lana falls hard for Brandon Teena (Swank), the shy newcomer with the beautiful smile, and she both knows and doesn't want to know that Brandon is, at least in biological terms, a girl.

The Brandon Teena story has been much theorized by identity-oriented academics and activists, but Peirce is a storyteller weaving a complex fable about lies and truth, love and betrayal. For her (as, one suspects, in life), Brandon's identity is never quite fixed and always contradictory: He's almost a boy, not exactly a lesbian, more than a cross-dresser. In her riveting director's commentary, probably the best I've yet encountered in this young medium, Peirce discusses not only the sometimes hilarious hazards of low-budget filmmaking but her philosophical and even spiritual approach to Brandon's story. You feel afterward like you've just enjoyed an inspiring conversation, one at least as much about life as about movies.

Although Brandon ultimately became the victim of a particularly heinous hate crime -- be warned that the violence in "Boys Don't Cry," although not especially explicit, is both realistic and terrifying -- Peirce avoids easy dichotomies. Brandon is a low-rent criminal with a self-destructive streak, and the men who abuse and finally kill him/her are not monsters but tortured, even likable, losers driven into a terrible act by their own uncontrollable fears.

Most of all, the Brandon created by Peirce and Swank is a tragic and ironic but completely uncynical embodiment of the American dream: She/he is relentlessly optimistic, a believer in self-improvement and self-invention, young, flawed and doomed. Truth -- in the narrow sense of who did what to whom on what occasion -- is often overemphasized in fact-based filmmaking, when the real question should be what the experience meant to those who lived it and what it now means to us when we relive it as narrative. Kimberly Peirce goes in search of this second kind of truth, and she knows it when she sees it. Brandon Teena (and, for that matter, Teena Brandon) could have asked for no better testament.

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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