Film review: Boys Don’t Cry (1999), directed by Kimberly Peirce
Based on a true story, Boys Don’t Cry is about Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank), a young trans man in early 1990s Nebraska. He was born biologically female but doesn’t identify as a woman at all, so he presents himself as male: dresses like a boy, wears his hair like a boy, and acts like a boy. He prefers to call himself Brandon Teena instead of Teena Brandon.
We follow Brandon through missed court dates and as he’s gathering information about getting gender reassignment surgery, through him falling in love with a girl called Lana (Chloë Sevigny), who, when she discovers Brandon is trans, still wants him. However, life is rarely that easy, especially not if you live in an area where gay and trans people don’t just get harassed, they actually get lynched. It’s not a happy story.
Also starring Peter Sarsgaard as John Lotter, Brendan Sexton III as Tom Nissen, Alicia Goranson as Candace and Alison Folland as Kate.
The surprising thing about this film, for me, is how savage the anti-LGBT people were. Sure, it’s nearly 20 years ago now, but at the same time, it’s not the dark ages. (Update August 2021: It was naive of me to think that. What’s worse is that things are still this fucking bad in places.) What Brandon has to go through is so, so sad. If he had lived in somewhere like New York, for instance, he might now have had much of a problem at all. But being in Redneck Town, Nebraska …
The less surprising thing is that Hilary Swank played the part really well, and won an Oscar for it. It’s an incredibly strong performance, especially toward the end of the film – what happens is both brutal and shocking and emotionally devastating. We can only imagine what it must have been like for the real Brandon, if it leaves the audience of a film disgusted and horrified.
On the other hand, this is not the sort of film I enjoy. Not when the main characters are hard to like. There’s no real owing up to what they’ve done – like refusing to keep the court dates – and not acting responsibly or at least rationally. No, they seem quite content with being down and out. Brandon’s great ambition? Owning a trailer park. Umm, okay. Then again, we’re from two vastly different worlds in so many ways.
For a good part of this film I wasn’t particularly drawn in. Didn’t like the characters, didn’t like the story, didn’t like most things, even though the actors were good. The script too, I suppose, wasn’t my cup of tea, it’s too miserable. Or rather, too busy being miserable to do anything about it. And then, of course, the film meanders into its shockingly terrifying climax and it’s like being hit right in the stomach. Unpleasant. Particularly if you’re female, I hesitate to say. Nightmare stuff.
If you like this sort of film, about social hardship in modern times, you’ll probably love Boys Don’t Cry. If you don’t, then you probably won’t. Either way it’s a good talking point, if nothing else, and at the same time a reflection on how far we’ve come since. (Update 2021: And how far we still have to go.) And it made Hilary Swank’s career.
3 out of 5 trailer parks.