Thursday 5 February 2015

Movie Review: Boys Don't Cry (1999)

A harrowing film recounting the events leading up to the 1993 murder of Brandon Teena, a Nebraska transgendered man, Boys Don't Cry is an unblinking story of personal struggle, love, and society's inability to deal with what is different.

In Lincoln, Nebraska, Brandon (Hilary Swank) is a young man trapped in a woman's body. A petty criminal with a chequered record and an inability to hold down a job, Brandon has transformed his outward physical appearance into a man and is trying to save money for a sex change operation, but the goal seems out of reach. He travels to the rural Falls City region, and makes friends with a group of four locals: John Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard), Tom Nissen (Brendan Sexton III), Candace (Alicia Goranson) and Lana (Chloƫ Sevigny). They are all drifting sideways in a life dominated by poverty and alcohol, and remain unaware that Brandon is a trans man.

John, Tom and Candace welcome Brandon into their lives and families, while Brandon and Lana develop a mutual attraction that progresses to physical intimacy. Brandon has hopes of moving to a better life in Memphis, while Lana dreams of a career as a barroom karaoke singer. John and Tom have violent tendencies and intermittent scrapes with the law. When Brandon again falls foul of the authorities, his struggles with sexual identity are revealed, with tragic consequences.

An independent production directed by Kimberly Peirce at a cost of $2 million, Boys Don't Cry cuts to the core. This is a remarkably tragic love story that addresses the human spirit outside the confines of the human body, and find the emotions of longing, love and hate transcending gender. Social norms force Brandon into a life that is misconstrued as deceitful, and social conditioning tips John Lotter and Tom Nissen into a pre-wired response of drunken brutality because their world was not designed to accommodate an outlier. Rarely has a film stared so uncomfortably at the failings of the human condition.

Peirce jumps in at the deep end of the pool and creates an unrelenting experience. Boys Don't Cry reveals a forgotten and depressing rural America ruled by the tyranny of poverty, alcohol, crime, a lack of education and dead-end jobs. In a grim exercise of communal calculus, life for Brandon would be tough anywhere. In the rural hinterlands, how Brandon presents himself is literally a matter of life and death, and the moments of tender affection between Brandon and Lana stand out like a unique river of purity running through a toxic wasteland.

But the other side of genuine desperation is unintended deception. Brandon just wants to fit in, carve a place in life, pursue a dream, make friends and fall in love. That he has the body of a woman is an embarrassing inconvenience that he has to cover up and circumvent. And if Brandon can overcome his own body's incongruity with his self, he expects others who love him to be able to as well. His struggle for acceptance is wrongly perceived as a massive betrayal, leading to horrific violence.

Relatively unknown at the time of the film's release, Hilary Swank delivers a seminal performance as Brandon Teena. Swank won the first of her Best Actress Academy Awards for embodying the heart and soul of a tentative man. She nails the mannerisms and attitude of vulnerable uncertainty, with the smiles and gestures of a man perilously close to the edge but trying hard all the time to be one of the guys.

Chloƫ Sevigny is also excellent as Lana, the intended lover and unintended emotional victim. The film takes liberties with Lana's actions late in the drama, but Sevigny nevertheless portrays her as the sensitive and yet shining beacon of hope. Even when surrounded by hate and ignorance, Lana fights for love and tolerance, in a demonstration not of what society is, but what we it can be. Boys Don't Cry is painful, and painfully essential.

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