In New York City's Harlem circa 1987, an overweight, abused, illiterate teen who is pregnant with her second child is invited to enroll in an alternative school in hopes that her life can head in a new direction.
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
The most impressive aspect of `Boys Don't Cry' is that it refuses to shy away from the sordid details of much of its protagonist's life, yet manages to convert her (or him if you prefer) into a sympathetic and comprehensible figure. In our most honest moments, we can all acknowledge aspects of our own lives and personalities that we don't understand, that we would love to change and that often make us feel alienated from the `norm' of society at large. In the case of Teena Brandon a young man `trapped' in a woman's body - the anomaly happens to be a more pronounced and certainly less socially acceptable one than most of us are forced to endure in our lives. And she paid the ultimate price society demands from those it fears and does not understand: she was murdered in Nebraska in 1993, simply for being `different.'
The film builds a convincing case for compassionate understanding without converting Brandon into a saint-like figure. Not only do we witness the petty criminality of her life, but we see her propensity for duplicity and deception, a personality trait that actually leads in part to many of the troubles she encounters, playing a crucial role to a large extent even in her death itself. Yet, given society's out-of-hand rejection of transgendered people, what real options but a life of dishonesty is Brandon really given? Similarly, Lana, the young woman with whom Brandon falls in love and the one person who has ever accepted Brandon unconditionally for what she is, suffers from a number of her own demons.
Credit writer/director Kimberly Pierce and co-writer Andy Bienen for not taking the easy commercial path of reducing the moral complexities of the personalities involved to a black-and-white world where good and evil are displayed in neatly arranged patterns for our easy consumption. There are many times in this film when literally none of the people we are involved with are the slightest bit appealing. The filmmakers, in their faith in our maturity, ask us to go along on a pretty harrowing journey at times, but it is one that leads us to a very rewarding destination. The scenes in which Brandon's companions expose her secret is riveting and terrifying in its dramatic intensity and human sadness. The utter humiliation Brandon is forced to endure at the hands of the hooligans who are tormenting her broadens to become a symbolic representation of every person who has suffered such an injustice at the hands of unreasoning ignorance for whatever reason. It is a chilling reminder of the danger of the mob mentality unrestrained by empathy and enlightenment.
Like so many of the best off-Hollywood independent productions, `Boys Don't Cry' finds its truth in two crucial elements: the canny depiction of the bleak sterility and stifling provincialism of its Midwest setting and the uniformly first-rate performances by a largely unknown set of actors.
Hilary Swank, in her Oscar-winning turn as Brandon, and Chloe Sevigny as Lana achieve a naturalism in their portrayals that neutralizes any theatricality that might have robbed the film of its indispensable quality of immediacy and believability. They convert what might, in less capable hands, have become little more than a sensationalized freak show into a powerful and understandable drama about real, thoroughly recognizable human beings. For that alone, `Boys Don't Cry' becomes a cinematic experience impossible to forget
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