Boys Don’t Cry (1999): Kimberly Peirce’s Superlative Dramatic Feature, Starring Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny

Though six years have passed since the brutal rape and murder of Teena Brandon, the complex protagonist of Kimberly Peirce’s superlative dramatic feature Boys Don’t Cry, time has only made her story more chilling, more compelling–and more relevant.

A devastatingly powerful tale of a young girl who disguised herself as a boy, this richly dense narrative touches on many controversial and timely issues: the nature of sexual identity, biology versus sociology in gender construction, role-playing in modern life, and a perceptive anatomy of homophobia and intolerance in the American heartland.

Anchored by two fully realized performances, by Hilary Swank as the sexual misfit and Chloe Sevigny as her sensitive girlfriend, this thematically audacious, technically accomplished film should play well with open-minded viewers seeking edgy, mature and non-conventional fare. With the right handling and critical support, this Fox Searchlight release could become one of the most talked-about indies of the year.

Bold and for the most part uncompromising, Boys Don’t Cry reps a breath of fresh air at a time when most American indies have gotten too soft and too close to the mainstream. Mixing freely but astutely fictional and nonfictional elements in relating the life of Brandon Teena (ne Teena Brandon), Peirce and Andy Bienen’s multi-layered script is inspired by the style of journalism and literature of Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) and Norman Mailer (The Executioner’s Song), and by such uniquely American crimers as Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands, rural sagas that viewed their subjects from a chillingly detached perspective.

At the most obvious level, Boys Don’t Cry tells a tender love story between two outcasts, stuck in the crudest and most stifling White Trash surroundings. It’s a tribute to the filmmakers’ intelligence that they don’t offer simplistic Freudian or other psychologistic explanations for the “bizarre and deviant” conduct of Brandon Teena. Nor do they mythologize a figure who had previously received coverage in a New Yorker profile and was the subject of a documentary, The Brandon Teena Story, released by Zeitgeist in 1998. There’s very little in the movie about Brandon’s past as a girl or petty thief, and most of this info comes rather late in the proceedings.

Set in 1993, story begins in Lincoln, Nebraska, with the 20- year-old Brandon (Swank) getting a boyish haircut and preparing himself for a night-out, dressed in blue jeans, flannel shirt and boots. Though warned by his close friend Lonny (Matt McGrath) that his behavior signals big trouble and “folks in Fall City kill fags,” Brandon insists that his life is on the right track, that he knows what he’s doing.

Brandon arrives in Fall City as a bright newcomer who enchants all those who meet him. Soon he establishes himself as a playful rebel-drifter, a sensitive and loyal friend, an irresistible romantic who seduces lonely, innocent and underprivileged beauties. At a local bar, Brandon befriends Candace (Alicia Goranson), a young single mom who invites him to move into her place. But as soon as he lays his eyes on the sexually appealing Lana (Sevigny), it’s love at first sight.

First reel unfolds as a series of rites of passage, with Brandon making every effort to be fully accepted by the men (all ex-cons) in the group, headed by the macho John (Peter Sarsgaard), who’s the lover of Lana’s mom (Jeannetta Arnette) and still infatuated with Lana, and his younger, brutish companion Tom (Brendan Sexton III). The clique, which functions as a fractured extended family, spends its time boozing, smoking, and parting.

The sharp writing and nuanced acting of all thesps involved pull the viewers into what’s basically a story of disguise, or double life, of a fun-loving heartbreaker. In several revealing scenes, Peirce documents what it means–and what it physically takes–to be dressed and behave as a boy trapped in a woman’s body.

The second act centers on the tender love relationship that evolves between Brandon and Lana: their first date, initial kiss, and outdoor love-making, which is crosscut with a delirious Lana recounting the experience for her curious friends. It is in these sequences that the neophyte Peirce reveals herself to be a deft helmer of emotionally complex and tension-ridden situations.

Turning point occurs when Brandon is thrown into the local jail, at the girls’ section, for cumulative traffic offenses, and Lana comes to visit him. Confronted, Brandon sticks to his version that he’s basically a case of “sexual identity crisis,” born with some male and some female parts. With total understanding and unshattered belief in his world, Lana continues the ecstatic affair continues, which leads to a big party for Brandon’s 21st birthday at her house.

Mid-section is repetitive and drags a bit (a cut of 6 to 8 minutes will be beneficial), but last reel is extremely powerful in chronicling the rednecks’ reaction when a local newspaper breaks Brandon’s story and his real identity appears in print. In sequences that surpass the harshness of the rape scene in The Accused (which was pretty strong stuff for 1988), John and Tom strip Brandon in the bathroom and force Lana to look at her genitals, then drag Brandon to a dusty isolated road and brutally beat and rape him. Still undeterred after filing a complaint of rape and assault, Brandon and Lana plan their escape and future life together, but when Lana shows hesitation, Brandon leaves by himself. Last act is almost too painful to watch, as it depicts the cold-blooded murder that terminated Brandon’s life in a ramshackle farmhouse, with Lana as a witness.

One of the highlights of The Brandon Teena Story was an audiotape of a sheriff’s investigation implying that Brandon was a pathological liar who deserved to meet his fate. Ultimately, though, docu didn’t do justice to its fascinating topic in its heavy reliance on talking heads and all too brief interviews. Rather perceptively, Boys Don’t Cry shifts the focus to the pathology of homophobia, misogyny, and hatred of anything that’s different, using the heartland as a microcosm for American society, hence suggesting that Brandon’s tragedy could have taken place anywhere.

Stunningly accomplished in every department, this first film boasts a sharp, illuminating cinematography by Jim Denault and flawless acting by the entire ensemble, from the two leads, who have never been better, to Sarsgaard and Sexton III as the macho rednecks, to Arnette, as Lana’s conflicted mom, to McGrath, as Brandon’s sympathetic mate in Lincoln.

Boys Don’t Cry is such a heartbreaking and poignantly candid film that it’s possible to appreciate it as Rebel Without a Cause youth movie for our culturally diverse and complex times, with two girl-misfits enacting the Jimmy Dean-Natalie Wood romance with utmost conviction and authenticity, searching, like their 1950s counterparts, love, self-worth, and a place to call home.

End Note:

Explaing why she had opted for a staright actress, Swank, and an unknown at that, to play the lead, director Kimbery Peirce has said: “I looked at every butch lesbian and transsexual and they were great, but they couldn’t pull off the role the way Hilary did.”


Brandon Teena….Hilary Swank
Lana…………Chloe Sevigny
John……….Peter Sarsgaard
Tom……..Brendan Sexton III
Kate………..Alison Folland
Candace…….Alicia Goranson
Lonny…………Matt McGrath
Brian…………Rob Campbell
Lana’s Mom…Jeannetta Artette


A Fox Searchlight release, in association with the Independent Film Channel of a Killer Films/Hart-Sharp production. Produced by Jeffrey Sharp, John Hart, Eva Kolodner, and Christine Vachon. Executive producers, Pamela Koffler, Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan, John Sloss. Co-producer, Morton Swinsky. Directed by Kimberly Peirce. Screenplay, Peirce and Andy Bienen. Camera (DeLuxe, color), Jim Denault; editors, Lee Percy, Tracy Granger; music, Nathan Larsen; production design, Michael Shaw; costume design, Victoria Farrell; sound (Dolby), Mack Melson ; associate producer, Bradford Simpson; casting, Billy Hopkins, Suzanne Smith, Kerry Barden, Jennifer McNamara.

Running time: 116 Minutes.