34. Boys Don’t Cry, directed by
Kimberly Peirce

34. Boys Don’t Cry, directed by
Kimberly Peirce

Boys Don’t Cry Until This Film Rips Out Your Heart And Eats It As You Stand And Watch With A Gaping Hole In Your Chest

By Rose Marel


Note: I will mainly be referring to the protagonist as Brandon / He, as that is the gender he identifies with.


Based on a true story, Boys Don’t Cry delves into the hopes and challenges of a person who identifies with their non-biological gender. It’s a love story and a story of dreams, a story of pursuing what is in your truest of hearts and trying as hard as you can to manifest that reality.

Biographically inspired by the life of Brandon Teena (or Teena Brandon), played by Oscar-winning Hilary Swank, the film begins in the conservative town of Nebraska. Teena’s a bit of a womaniser, except that she knows she’s not gay. For her, it goes beyond that and always has, regardless of what anyone, even doctors, say. Cutting her hair and donning masculine clothes and accessories (completed with a stuffed sock), Teena identifies as Brandon: an all-American, red-blooded male.

It seems that Brandon isn’t confused, but all the people around him are. Unfortunately, in steadfastly remaining true to his innermost self, Brandon generates a lot of trouble. In running towards girls and then promptly away from the ensuring persecution, Brandon runs all the way to Falls City, where a new bunch of teenagers might just be the closest thing he’s ever had to friends.

It’s here that he meets Lana (Chloë Sevigny), a girl that, like him, is an outlier. She’s an angsty loner, looking for something but not knowing what, whilst trying to keep her head above the dysfunction that constricts her. In a closed-minded Midwest society – a region built upon conservatism and culturally entrenched with homophobia – and compounded by the time of restricted perspective, Brandon’s experiences are almost impossible for his contemporaries to understand. Gender dysmorphia, rather than being taboo, wasn’t even recognised. So aside from his brother, Brandon must wrap his past as tightly as his chest.

Released in 1999, the subject matter must have been highly progressive – most definitely ahead of the public transgender awareness that began surging over the last decade, arguably peaking around the time of Caitlyn Jenner’s public transitioning. Even in 2018, amid green-lit same sex marriage legislation and the widespread use of vernacular like “gender fluidity” and “pansexuality”, there still remains a divided opinion of transexuality. More than anything, there’s a leap from established convention that informs social and gender roles – perhaps more so for an older generation grappling with the concept – and a slightly disconnected understanding that innately even affects those who mentally approve. Those lived realities belonging to a transgender person, those feelings and conflicting facts, can in no way – no matter anyone else’s intention – be fully related to.Related image

For that reason, films like Boys Don’t Cry are tremendously valuable. Storytelling takes on a higher purpose here, as a vehicle to gain insight into the experiences of an unexplored minority. Brandon is a representation of transgender people everywhere in the same way that he’s a personification of the universal quest for self-fulfilment and love. More than that, the film is a medium through which to discuss the baseness of prejudice and that differences don’t detract from our humanity but, rather, enrich it.

Peirce beautifully focuses primarily on the romance between Brandon and Lana and the optimism of Brandon to create a positive representation of transgender themes. By concentrating less on the gender disassociation, the audience become more aligned with the humanity of the characters and their plights. As individuals, we connect easily and form a cognitive rapport that doesn’t feel pushed or foisted upon us.

Peirce gently handles the sensitive subject matter by knowing when to be rough with it. Boys Don’t Cry has moments of touching tenderness that are shred apart with the confrontational physicality of violence. To me, it felt like a highly violent film, although not always graphically. It’s emotionally violent, as well as verbally and sexually, but mainly its violence is reserved for tearing at the protagonist’s free will and identity. His irrepressible quest for self-freedom is so constantly and savagely invaded. It’s uncomfortable and in no way tries to soften its blows. Instead, it challenges us as relentlessly as it does Brandon. Underlying this, of course, is the constant tension of being discovered.

Peirce draws spellbinding performances from her cast, and crafts a disturbingly real expression of its themes. I don’t know if I’ve seen many films with such an extreme visceral energy. It’s confronting for sure, and it reverberates within the audience, shaking us to our core. Afterwards, my insides felt jagged and my tear ducts completely wrung. Juxtaposed against this is Brandon as a beacon of optimism, who’s rendered all the more bright in stark contrast to the encroaching black around him. This push-pull dynamic works beneath the story, typifying the best and worst of human nature. We witness the bitterness and compulsion to corrupt those who are different, the attempt to degrade the luminous with ugly reflections of their own light, but we also witness the resilience and capacity for hope of those who fight against it.

Hilary Swank, director Kimberly Peirce and Chloë Sevigny at the Boys Don’t Cry.

Hilary Swank is unbelievable in her believability. Her physicality, her voice and her emotional vulnerability is utterly breathtaking. Everything is a choice wielded and then perfected by a brilliant actor, furthered by her personal humanity and connection to the story. Coming at the role from a view of truth rather than ‘acting as a girl acting as a boy’, Swank raises this film to a new level of emotional intensity and hyper-realism by completely inhabiting the character. Infusing her portrayal with so much optimism, and driving her character in the single-minded and tenacious desire for love and truth, is so awe-inspiring for the audience that the horror of potential harm or corruption befalling Brandon is a physically sickening prospect. Chloe Sevigny is also fabulous as Lana, as is Peter Sarsgaard as a charismatic destroyer.

To broaden our minds and reimagine our perspectives through that of someone very different is a feat most movies merely scratch the surface of. The film is so accomplished there’d be no way of knowing that this was Kimberly Peirce’s feature debut. By texturing an intimate character story with enormous cultural and social issues, we find a way in and are bound to the character’s experiences which, when done well, keeps us tethered long after the movie finishes.

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