Standing in the back of a pickup truck, Brandon Teena whoops and yells, a big smile on his face. The truck bucks and spins past a crowd of kids drinking on the sidelines. When Brandon loses his balance, he hits the muddy ground and bounces, then gets up and goes again. Bruised and dirty as he might be, Brandon’s happy to be here. He’s drinking beer with the guys and impressing the girls. He’s doing what you’re supposed to do when you’re a boy. Or so he thinks.
As the charismatic protagonist in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry, Brandon embodies the ongoing dilemma of masculine identity. This dilemma is exacerbated by the fact that, when you see him riding that pickup truck, some fifteen minutes into the film, you already know that 18-year-old Brandon’s efforts to act like a boy are complicated by the fact that he is, biologically speaking, a girl, born Teena Brandon. Based on a true story and cowritten by Peirce and Andy Bienen, the movie opens with Teena (Hilary Swank, in a heartbreakingly genuine performance) checking herself out in the mirror, taping down her breasts and donning jeans and a cowboy hat, in preparation for an evening at the roller rink. She knows she’s courting danger, given that she’s a known troublemaker (car thief) in her hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, not to mention that homophobic attacks are local sport, but she can’t help herself. She knows what she wants, to live as a boy, fall in love with a girl, and live happily ever after.
Self-imagined and convincingly transformed, Brandon does meet a girl at the roller rink. But he’s found out by the girl’s male friends, who, incensed and afraid, chase Brandon to the trailer where he’s staying with his best friend, Lonny (Matt McGrath). Being gay himself, Lonny knows something about bashing and the risks of performance that really aren’t worth taking. When the boys start throwing shit through the windows, Lonny tells Brandon he needs to face facts: he’s a girl, and no one’s going to let him be anything else.
Brandon leaves town soon after, sort of by accident. Defending a girl he meets in a bar, Candace (Alicia Goranson), he gets in a fight with some locals, takes off in a hurry, and finds himself in an alley with a couple of seeming tough guys, John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III). They think he’s cool for defending their friend Candace, so they offer him a ride to some party out in Falls City, a night’s drive away. The next morning, waking at Candace’s house, Brandon is proud of his shiner and happy to be accepted for what he sees in himself. He decides to stay.
When Brandon meets John’s ex, Lana (the ever generous and superb Chloe Sevigny), he starts to believes his own fantasy. In his bedroom at Candace’s, he gets ready for a night out with the kids. Posing again in front of the mirror, he smiles: should he wear a sock or dildo? bangs mussed or combed? Thrilled by his passing, he falls a little in love with the act and with the reality that he finally sees within his reach. Everyone invites Brandon into their lives, the guys, Lana, her friend Kate (Allison Folland), and Lana’s mom (Jeanetta Arnette). They’re as impressed by his determination and beauty, his gentleness and daring, as Brandon seems to be. Their trust invites yours. It hardly seems a suspension of disbelief to see Brandon as he sees himself.
The film’s approach is a risky one. Rather than speculating about who knew what when, or pathologizing Brandon’s performance like a Jerry Springer episode, the film asks you to understand both his wish to be himself and his new family’s willingness to share the illusion. When Brandon’s past finally does catch up with him he’s busted for writing bad checks, then exposed as wanted for grand theft auto back in Lincoln, and revealed as a girl Lana is understandably bewildered, less by the fact (which she may have guessed) than by the rage shown by her mother and friends. Lana chooses to hold onto the relationship and the faith it signifies: she loves Brandon, her man. But the guys feel betrayed by their own socializing: what does it say about them, that they would believe, like, and even feel attracted to a girl posing as a boy? To fix the situation, to reestablish the familiar order of gender and power, they rape Teena and tell her to keep quiet.
But the rape is violent: they batter Teena to the point that she must see a doctor, which leads to a trip to the sheriff’s office. And so another truth comes out. Brandon must confess his crime that he has a vagina at the same time that he narrates the rape for the cops. John and Tom are undone, and they can only destroy the person who represents their loss of self-assurance, their questions about themselves.
The tragedy is tremendous. But the film never makes it seem freaky or startling, or even deviant. In fact, the great achievement of Boys Don’t Cry is its respect for all its characters and situations. Small town Nebraska has never looked so seductive as it does through Brandon’s eyes (and Jim Denault’s ravishing, hyper-real cinematography): time lapse footage makes the sky seem alive and watchful, while the cramped trailer park interiors and nighttime waterside where Lana and Brandon hang out are pulsing with color and possibility. It’s tempting to see their love as transcendent, but it’s more confused and fervent than that. They share an experience that’s more solid than the world around them, less fraught with distrust and fear. The film argues that they can see each other more clearly than their class and community might seem to allow.
The film contextualizes Brandon and Lana instead of trying to explain their actions. It lets you see how they saw themselves, how they desired themselves into existence. And it ends up posing precisely the questions that face Brandon and his friends: What does it mean to be a man? To want a man? How does violence become a thinkable response to the chaos and frustration of daily life? What is transgression? Who is threatened and why? How do you know who you are?
Such questions seem to be in the mass cultural air recently. They’re the same ones raised by Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, Susan Faludi’s Stiffed, David Fincher’s Fight Club, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s Bringing Out The Dead. Men feeling betrayed and cheated and desperate make compelling subjects, no doubt. But gender roles and sexual desires were never so fixed as they might seem to those tending toward nostalgia (though the fretting certainly seems speeded up). Boys Don’t Cry imagines multiple, unresolvable perspectives. Peirce’s movie doesn’t produce answers so much as it complicates the process of asking. It doesn’t even pretend that it delivers the truth about Brandon Teena. It offers instead a mix of stories, brief glimpses of truth. They shimmer like Brandon against Falls City’s deep blue twilight sky, unfixed and seductive.