During the past decade or so, our movies have brimmed with visions of men pretending to be women, and most of these images have been thick with artifice and illusion. In the lyrical and galvanizing true-life drama Boys Don’t Cry, Teena Brandon, a mysterious vagabond in her early 20s, passes herself off as a young man in the blue-collar hinterlands of Nebraska, and though we watch her tape back her breasts, stuff a sock into her pants, and trim her hair into a modified James Dean cowlick, essentially she’s not wearing a costume. It’s as if she were stripping down, at last, to her true self. Even the name change is minimal — she calls herself Brandon Teena.
Hilary Swank, the extraordinary star of Boys Don’t Cry, is rangy and slender, with a beaming, big-choppered smile that’s an eerie ringer for Matt Damon’s. Approaching some girls at a roller rink, Brandon walks with a light swagger and speaks in a chivalrous, seductive drawl, but it’s his inner feminine sweetness that completes the come-on. Though we know we’re seeing a con artist, there’s a ferocious innocence — a hunger, a necessity — that drives Teena’s fixation on turning herself into this young man.
Directed and cowritten by first-time filmmaker Kimberly Peirce, who works with a purity and force that marks her as a major new voice, Boys Don’t Cry sticks close to the actual case of Brandon Teena, who was murdered in 1993, yet the film locates a fierce mythological undertow in the events of this extraordinary story. What Peirce never spells out explicitly, yet expresses in nearly every scene, is that Teena’s desire to be male, driven though it is by psychosexual identity confusions, is also a profound spiritual lunge at freedom. It’s not enough for her to be strong or courageous, or to express her physical attraction to women. What she longs to feel within herself is the unrestrained heart of a wild-child rebel/jock/cowboy. She’s throwing off the last shackles of American girlhood, an act of recklessly fearless self-creation that is destined to end in darkness. Staring into a bedroom mirror, Brandon fixes his hair and, with a slight smile of wonder, says to himself, ”I’m an a — hole!” What he means is, I’m flying now.
Boys Don’t Cry has some of the plainsong intensity and shock of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. Brandon drifts into a makeshift family of roughnecks and rural-eccentric lonely hearts, and he falls in love with the fawnlike Lana (Chloe Sevigny), a sullen, damaged teenager who loves him back with startling delicacy, blinding herself to Brandon’s nature even when it’s right in front of her. Sevigny is radiant and moving, and Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III are ominously authentic as violent Midwestern sociopaths driven to annihilate what they can’t control. It’s Swank, however, who’s the revelation. By the end, her Brandon/Teena is beyond male or female. It’s as if we were simply glimpsing the character’s soul, in all its yearning and conflicted beauty.