What do we call Teena Brandon? ”Transgendered” seems inappropriately ideological, ”androgyne” unfittingly futuristic, and ”cross-dresser” too whimsically flimsy. In Boys Don’t Cry, Kimberly Peirce’s harrowing first film, Teena Brandon simply called herself Brandon Teena and started living as a man. Because Brandon lived in the real-life trailer-park precincts of 1993 Nebraska, this quietly brazen disruption of easy categories proved fatal.
Swank’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Brandon has a note of showy martyrdom that seems a bit off-key. Otherwise, her performance is perfect, and perfectly staggering. Her Brandon is an honest imposter, with a solid core of confidence under layers of vulnerability. The gender confusion is all ours.