Boys Don't Cry (1999)

D: Kimberly Peirce
S: Hilary Swank, Chloë Sevigny

Sometimes we do...

The true story of Teena Brandon becomes a dark vision of masculinity as other in the hands of director Kimberly Peirce and co-writer Andy Bienen. Showcasing a fine performance from Oscar winner Hilary Swank and stylishly directed, the film is both powerful and well made, but it is difficult for a male viewer to find a way past the relentlessly negative portrayal of masculinity which lies at its heart. The film is not so much the story of Teena Brandon, the girl who longed to be a man and paid for it with her life, as it is a tale of how she was repressed, dismissed, and eventually murdered by men for her audacity in attempting to join their ranks. There is not a single redeemable male character in the film, from the police and judiciary who attempt to arrest and jail her to the helpful cousin who thinks she needs psychiatric help to the would-be friends who eventually turn on her. By contrast Brandon's strength of character stems for her ability to empathise with females (especially would-be lover Chloë Sevigny) and to exemplify those traits of sensitivity, gentleness, and unpretentiousness which males are shown to lack. Frequent references are made to how Brandon (masquerading as male) differs from the other boys because he is not macho, more attractive, and generally a better person. It eventually becomes a tiresome tirade against masculinity per se, and a simplistic homage to a woman's right to choose to the extent that she can become not only a man, but a better man than any biological male. This is an unfortunately extreme interpretation of a rich subject area which deserved more subtle and even-handed treatment.

The male world is viewed here through the filter of Brandon's perceptions. It is a strange, primitive world of half-realised rituals, barbaric ceremonies, and hidden emotions filled with violence (both to themselves and to others) and barely repressed hatred towards women. Men are seen to be possessive, criminal-minded, alcoholic rapists whose desire to control women is the only genuine emotion they seem able to express. The story begins when Brandon flees her native town (where she has been living with her cousin for reasons not made entirely clear) and attempts to build an identity for herself as a male in another. There she befriends a group of women, including a waitress, some factory workers, and two ex-con males who have no visible means of support other than crime. Brandon initially fits in with the group, proving both a game and able male and an unusually sensitive and understanding one, to the point where he develops a close emotional and physical relationship with Sevigny. Jealousy of this relationship prompts one of the males, Peter Sarsgaard, whose relationship with Sevigny is seen as dysfunctional from the outset (she calls him a 'stalker' at one point, and admits that her kindness to him prior to this point was purely out of naivete and sympathy for his situation when he was in jail), to attempt to oust the intruder (seen to be a defining male characteristic, of course). When he happens upon Brandon's secret, his rage becomes sexually deviant and murderous, for no apparent reason other than that this is how vengeful males act. Brandon's intrusion into the strange land that is masculinity results in his unmasking and her destruction. It makes one wonder what she ever saw in us in the first place.

To give credit where it is due, this is a well crafted film with nice detail in the screenplay and a directorial touch which reminds one of an early Gus Van Sant. Its avowedly independent spirit is laudable, and the movie received not undue plaudits from the indie community before its Oscar recognition. Swank is terrific in the lead, both strong and vulnerable in even doses, with just a suggestion of emotional unbalance (rooted in deeper psychological gender crises, but resulting in theft and a desire to evade responsibility for such crimes). It is a brave performance and a clear-minded film which does credit to the difficulties which must have been faced by Teena Brandon and Brandon Teena. Yet, like Thelma & Louise, Boys Don't Cry is ultimately too much of a polemic to grant genuine insight into contemporary gender relations, except as an extremely partisan point of view. Like Thelma & Louise it falls prey to the temptation to turn its male characters into cyphers and caricatures, which really serves nothing but rhetoric. This is disappointing not least of all because the generally realistic tone and Swank's powerful performance have the ring of authenticity, and thus the film is likely to be thought of in objective rather than aggressively subjective terms. There is much more to be said about the issues this film raises, and it is ultimately as guilty of manipulating questions of transgender identities as Silence of the Lambs, yet fewer voices have been raised in protest. The film is worth seeing, but cannot but rank among the most alarmingly sexist visions of masculinity yet seen on the American screen. Is turnabout really fair play in this day and age? Is this an appeal for tolerance or a clarion call for militancy? As ever, decide for yourself, but try to be aware that there are two sides to every story, something the film actually never makes clear despite the centrality of duality to both its plot and emotional core.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.