Based on actual events. Brandon Teena is the popular new guy in a tiny Nebraska town. He hangs out with the guys, drinking, cussing, and bumper surfing, and he charms the young women, who've never met a more sensitive and considerate young man. Life is good for Brandon, now that he's one of the guys and dating hometown beauty Lana. However, he's forgotten to mention one important detail. It's not that he's wanted in another town for GTA and other assorted crimes, but that Brandon Teena was actually born a woman named Teena Brandon. When his best friends make this discovery, Brandon's life is ripped apart. Written by
This is a poignant and powerful film. It is the true story of Teena Brandon, a young woman who is in the throes of a sexual identity crisis. She cuts her hair and dresses like a man to see if she can pass for one. What starts out as an experiment turns into a full fledged alter ego as she is accepted as a man by a group she meets in a bar. The story follows the group's escapades, including Brandon's love affair with Lana, who falls in love with Brandon, thinking she's a man. It culminates with the discovery that Brandon is actually a woman with a dramatic confrontation in the finale.
This is film noir at it's finest. A lot of people think that this is a story about courage and lesbianism but it is really about neither. It is about the search for identity; not just sexual identity but the search for a deeper self . All the characters in this film were lost and confused, but Brandon was the only one who realized it of herself. The rest were basically playing out their despondent lives trying not to think of who or what they were. Here was a person they loved and accepted, but who turned out to be the most heinous of deviants as defined by their own prejudices and fears. This is why they were so fundamentally shaken upon the revelation of Brandon's true identity. It left them to confront their own flimsy identities. They were left with no respite from the emotional vortex. Brandon presented a terrifying threat to the way they viewed themselves. They were compelled to change who they were or hate someone they had grown to love.
This film was also about obsession. Brandon takes extraordinary risks to live the male role, not out of courage, but out of an obsession to know and understand it, and to see if she can find comfort and a sense of belonging. Likewise, writer/director Kimberly Peirce had been obsessed with this story and researched it for five years before finally making the film. Obsession generally leads to one of two places: greatness or death. For Peirce, at least for the moment, it has lead to greatness in the production of this film.
Strictly from a technical directorial standpoint there was nothing special here. The lighting was amateurish, the shots were mostly mundane. The sets and locations were realistically trashy, but it is a lot easier to create realistic trash than realistic elegance. Peirce also bogs the film down occasionally with excessive character development. However, Peirce captures in the story and the filming, the essence of rural lower class crudenes, bigotry and hatred and fear. It is the raw emotion that reaches out and grabs us. Her lens brought into sharp focus the base reality of inescapable despair and deluded hope. Reality often has fangs, and Peirce was undaunted in showing them and then ripping us to shreds.
As to Hilary Swank, I can only add one more rose to the bouquet of praise that has been heaped on her. If there was any courage in this story, it was the courage of Swank to take such a complex and disturbing role. The subtlety of her performance was astounding. She needed not just to be a woman playing a man. She needed to be a woman playing a woman playing a man, trying to look convincing yet insecure and unsure of how she was being perceived by the other characters. When in character, her many skillful lapses into moments of femininity, only to snap back into masculinity were masterfully done. For Swank, this was a meteoric rise from obscurity. It remains to be seen if it was just the perfect alignment of actor and role, or something more. I hope for the latter and look forward to seeing her next project.
Greatly obscured by Swankmania, was the performance by Chloe Sevigny as Lana, Brandon's love interest. She gave an outstanding performance in another extraordinarily difficult role. Her conflict over the implications of her sexual and emotional feelings for Brandon were sensitively and delicately portrayed. She played the part with a tentative eagerness, just as one would expect of someone whose sexual identity had been thrown into upheaval. It was also no easy career choice to be cast in a role with so many explicit sexual scenes with another woman.
This film was stark reality with no holds barred. The filmmaking was technically unsophisticated (and I'm usually a real stickler about that), but I rated it a 9/10 on pure emotional power. This film is not for you if you are offended by lesbianism, graphic violence or profanity. But if you are not intimidated by the naked reality of the darker side of life, this is a film you must experience.
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