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A Crying Shame

First-time director Kimberly Peirce distinguishes herself and her real-life subject with Boys Don't Cry.

All hail. America is the seat of democracy and the world's most mobile society -- the place where a printer's apprentice named Samuel Clemens can take a new name and remake himself as the country's greatest satirist, where a geeky college dropout can become a software billionaire and shoeless boys from the Caribbean can grow up to play in the World Series.

Just don't tell that to the family of Matthew Shepherd, whose crime was being gay in Laramie, Wyoming, and who gave his life for it. Don't talk to Teena Brandon's friends and relatives about the sweet dream of selfhood, either. In Boys Don't Cry, an unsettling film by newcomer Kimberly Peirce, we get a harrowing look at the dark side of individualist reinvention, and in the end, a 21-year-old lies dead on the floor of a ramshackle Nebraska farmhouse.

The case of Teena Brandon, aka Brandon Teena, made sensational news here in neighboring Colorado and, in the six years since her murder, has prompted all manner of commentary in national media ranging from supermarket tabloids to intellectual quarterlies. The tragic story of a young woman in the throes of a sexual-identity crisis in the American heartland, and the irrational rage of her killers, has proven irresistible -- and so does Peirce's taut, relentless movie.

Gender gap: Peter Sarsgaard (from left), Hilary Swank and Brendan Sexton III on the town  --  the very small town  --  in Boys Don't Cry.
Gender gap: Peter Sarsgaard (from left), Hilary Swank and Brendan Sexton III on the town -- the very small town -- in Boys Don't Cry.

The scene, for the most part, is tiny Falls City, a raw, windblown farm town in the southeast corner of Nebraska. In 1993, a big night out for the town's restless youth consisted of shooting pool, talking big and drinking beer in a local bar, then maybe smoking some dope and going "bumper-skiing" -- standing astride the bed of a fishtailing pickup truck with only a strand of rope for balance. In Falls City -- at least the downtrodden parts of it that Peirce re-created near Dallas, Texas -- the houses need paint and the citizens need focus. Instead, loud-mouth machismo and redneck fatalism rule the day.

Teena Brandon drifts into this dead end from nearby Lincoln, Nebraska -- itself not the most cosmopolitan burg on the planet, but a college town with decent books in the library and some free-thinkers on the faculty. Even in Lincoln, Teena might have had a fighting chance, but in a place like Falls City, a girl posing as a boy is bound to be discovered, then get blown away by the prevailing winds. It's a tragedy of no small import. Slight and delicate and supremely talented, Hilary Swank (the best friend in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) portrays Teena-slash-Brandon not just as a kid with a problem but a visionary with a dream. Like every adolescent, she's searching for her true self, and if that authentic she happens to be a he, so be it. There's even precedent at the movies: In Maggie Greenwald's fact-based The Ballad of Little Jo (1993), Suzy Amis portrayed an Old West homesteader disguised as a man.

Certainly, the seeker who calls himself Brandon already has a few things going for him when he reaches the frontier of self: From the inside out, he understands the value of leaving a single rose for a woman on a kitchen table, and even if he presumes to throw a few punches in a barroom brawl, he also grasps both the power of charm and the strength of tenderness. He does, after all, have a double view of life.

In dumpy Falls City, however, Brandon's models for masculine behavior are sorely lacking -- sneery Tom Nissen (Brendan Sexton III) and unstable John Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard) are a couple of small-time losers, in and out of jail, with scrambled eggs for brains. But the newcomer's ambiguous charms have a profound effect on Lana Tisdel (Kids' Chloë Sevigny), a hard-luck teenager whose romantic experience consists mostly of getting batted around by emotional defectives like Tom and John. By comparison, Brandon may as well be Brad Pitt. Lana's slatternly Mom (Jeanetta Arnette) is no help: She's currently sleeping with one of her daughter's ex-boyfriends.

This is hardly the atmosphere in which a budding transsexual can expect to find bliss. But give actress Swank (a Nebraska native, as it happens), first-time director Peirce and her co-writer, Andy Bienen, credit for quietly ennobling Brandon's quest for self-definition. There's a real sweetness and yearning in this kid as she/he tries to mimic male bravado, or experiment with sex, or even button up the front of a flannel shirt. With her big, liquid eyes and androgynous good looks (she sheared off two feet of blonde hair for the part), Swank convinces us in no uncertain terms of Brandon's plight -- and the bravery underlying the will to change. Sarsgaard and Sexton, meanwhile, are authentically chilling.

Peirce wrote the first draft of this script as a master's thesis at Columbia University's film school -- not always the best prospect for a top-notch movie. But her powers of observation and her accumulation of telling detail are almost faultless. Like the Terence Malick of Badlands, she's captured not only the stark desolation of the prairie Midwest's convenience stores and empty highways, but the disordered brainwaves of killers-in-the-making. She's nailed the thickheadedness of local cops whose bigotry won't let them distinguish between victim and perpetrator. She understands not only the emotional agony of Brandon's quest for transcendence, but the giddy excitement in the trying --of being out on the edge.

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