It’s a true story that screams tabloid sensationalism: Six years ago, in Nebraska, twenty-year-old Brandon Teena was raped and later murdered by two ex-cons who became enraged that the boy they hung with for months was really Teena Brandon, a girl who strapped her breasts and stuffed a sock in her jeans. Amazingly, what could have been fodder for Jerry Springer becomes, in the hands of director-co-writer Kimberly Peirce, a shockingly intimate and deeply affecting film about the roots of sexual role-playing.
At the time of the murder, Peirce – then a graduate student in cinema at Columbia University – made a short film about Brandon drawn from trips to Nebraska to conduct interviews and attend the trials of the two men later convicted of the killing. This full-length feature allows Peirce to go beyond the facts and daringly interpret what went on inside the head of a girl who lived as a man in the homophobic American heartland.
Hilary Swank (Carly Reynolds on Beverly Hills 90210) proves an inspired choice to play Teena, a reckless spirit and small-time thief who leaves home with a vengeance. It’s not just cropped hair and butch flannels that mark the difference when Teena shows up in Falls City – it’s a new identity. Teena is now Brandon, the boy she always wanted to be. And not just any boy. Women find Brandon don a rebellious charmer, especially Lana Tisdel (Chloe Sevigny), an outsider who responds to Brandon’s hot kisses and his kindness. Also fooled, initially, are John Lot-ter (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom Nissen (Brendan Sexton III), boozing fag bashers and, later, Brandon’s killers. Even after Lana learns the truth about Brandon – scenes of sexual confusion in this film rival M Butterfly -she continues to support him. Peirce moves from delicacy to devastation with uncanny skill, and Swank and Sevigny give performances that burn in the memory. Boys Don’t Cry means to shake you, and does.