Sexual identity crisis is not an easy subject to tackle. It is much more complicated than men who want to be women and women who want to be men. There is a longing that stretches further than the physical body, and reaches for acceptance within the desired gender. To find that acceptance must be exhilarating and something very few facing these issues truly find. Sadly, more often than not, they are faced with hatred and humiliation by those ignorant to and threatened by their gender nonconformity. Boys Don’t Cry was based on the life and murder of a young transgender, Brandon Teena.
We first meet Brandon (Hilary Swank) testing out his new boy look. A short masculine haircut, loose wranglers, a plaid flannel shirt and he walks with nervous excitement into a roller rink. As he charms and skates with a girl she comments that he doesn’t seem like he’s from here, but somewhere beautiful.
Brandon is from Lincoln Nebraska and travels to Fall City; both appear to be void of any cultural or entertainment other than sleepy bars. To be transgender here seems extra tough; the men are strong, stern, big, narrow minded and often drunk. Brandon stands out from the rest being so small and much more sensitive than the rest. But he holds his own with the boys, doesn’t back down from a fight and even dares to go bumper skiing, the other main form of culture and entertainment.
In Fall City, Brandon finds a group that accepts him and assume him to be all man. They drink, party and get into a little trouble, but nothing that Brandon can’t handle. He and Lara (Chloë Sevigny) become an item, even getting physical while keeping Brandon’s biological sex a secret from Lara. When old trouble from Lincoln finds Brandon in Fall City, his real name raises some questions, that quickly turn hatred and violence.
What Swank did to bring out Brandon’s character is phenomenal. To better understand the struggles of trying to be a man, Swank spent a month living as a man, much like Brandon did. She tightly wrapped her chest in bandages and stuffed a sock down the front of her pants. Looks can only go so far, it’s the moments of happiness and anguish she brings out in Brandon that really set this performance apart. In the most troubling moments, I was shaken and angry for the degradation and humiliation poor Brandon was subject to. When things are going perfect with Lana, there is a sense of happiness, accomplishment and peace within Brandon that Swank brings out in such a moving way. Swank started earning this first Oscar before the cameras were even around her.
Let me warn you potential viewers, Boys Don’t Cry is a tough film to watch. The hateful name calling in Lincoln is only the tip of the iceberg. The violence pushed upon Brandon is disgusting, disturbing and all too real. His personal hardships of still being a biological woman are not glossed over. However, this is the sort of film that shakes people, wakes them out of a blissful ignorance to these hard subjects. It was a courageous directorial debut for Kimberly Peirce. Boys Don’t Cry is smart, daring, and unflinching at an agonizing truth. Nearly 20 years after Brandon’s murder, every mind opened by this film further insures that he did not die in vain.
“I’m scared of what’s ahead, but when I think of you I know I’ll be able to go on. You were right, Memphis isn’t that far off.”