1999 is what many consider to be the “Best year of film ever” and perhaps they are right. The year saw many great releases from women filmmakers including the likes of the Wachowski’s The Matrix, Julie Taymor’s Titus and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. Often, these films get overlooked in the discussions of the films of 1999, as critics tend to focus more heavily on the male-centric narratives of Fight Club, American Beauty and The Sixth Sense. And, while these films are all significantly important milestones in cinematic history, Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry is another film worthy of being part of the discussion of great films from that glorious year. Reflecting on Boys Don’t Cry twenty years later, the film appears to be more relevant now than ever, especially considering the on-going struggles than the transgender community still endures on a daily basis. It may be over twenty years since the real-life tragic murder of Brandon Teena but somehow a major part of society remains incapable of accepting transgender, non-binary and queer individuals.
The film follows Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank), a young man who has recently moved to Falls City, Nebraska. Brandon acts like every other young man, drinking at bars, talking about sports, and falling in love with women his age. He befriends ex-convicts John Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom Nissen (Brendan Sexton III), and their friends Candace (Alicia Goranson) and Lana Tisdel (Chloë Sevigny). Brandon and Lana have an instant attraction to each other and they become romantically involved. However, the truth of Brandon’s past (a past which Brandon has so desperately tried to hide) emerges, with devastating consequences.
When asked by Filmmaker Magazine about what drew her to direct a film about Brandon Teena, Peirce replied back with the following, “It’s amazing that Brandon walked the earth, that he lived in a trailer park and had no role models and limited economic means, and that he took the imaginative leap to pull off what he did. His sheer existence is completely compelling to me. And then that he got killed for it. [For me], being in love with him was the beginning, the birth of the character.” One gets the impression that Peirce had a great level of empathy and respect for Brandon and rather than present the story as a shock piece set on exploiting Brandon’s story, Peirce managed to present us with this very human and real individual who was so full of life and optimism.
Peirce’s dedication to tell Brandon’s story is something to be admired. Prior to filming, Peirce researched the facts by interviewing the people surrounding the case. She immersed herself in the information available about the murder, including trial transcripts. She even made sure to meet Lana Tisdel and interview her regarding her relationship with Brandon. Peirce somehow manages to ensure that the film doesn’t shy away from depicting the gravity of the truth about what occurred and those involved, but she also ensures that the film isn’t exploiting the tragedy of Brandon’s story. The film’s violence (especially sexual violence) isn’t glamourised in any fashion, and it’s far more impactful because it is depicted in such a realistic fashion.
Swank’s portrayal of Brandon is so effortless and honest that it’s hard to comprehend the level of work that Swank and Peirce both undertook in order to portray Brandon on screen. Prior to Boys Don’t Cry, Hilary Swank was relatively unknown, and she used this to her adventure. Swank successfully passed as a boy to the doorman at her audition and lied to Peirce about her age. When Peirce later confronted her about her lie, Swank responded, “But that’s what Brandon would do”. It was Swank’s ability to connect with Brandon that convinced Peirce to cast her in the role. Peirce would later go on to say that Swank’s audition was “the first time I saw someone who not only blurred the gender lines, but who was this beautiful, androgynous person with this cowboy hat and a sock in her pants, who smiled and loved being Brandon.”
Whereas much has been written about Swank’s award winning performance, praise must be had for Chloë Sevigny for her complex portrayal of her character, Lana. We understand the power of her magnetic pull and why Brandon feels so at ease around her, Lana isn’t just a passive love interest, she too is human. As a result, the viewer fully buys into the relationship between Brandon and Lana. Peirce also manages to capture a timeless quality to their relationship. These two individuals are star-crossed lovers born on the wrong side of the tracks, fate and destiny brings them together, only for their love to be misunderstood and threatened. Like the lovers in Badlands or Bonnie and Clyde, we all know the fate of these two characters, but we still cling onto hope by the authenticity of the two central performances.
Boys Don’t Cry still manages to shake you to your very core, the film feels as fresh and significant twenty years on. It is a hard watch, it’s violence and subject matter is still incredibly difficult to comprehend, but that’s why the film remains so powerful and relevant today. This isn’t to say that there aren’t issues with the film, primarily the decision to cast a cis-gendered actress as Brandon and not a trans performer in the role. There’s much we can take away from the film in terms of its production, its story and its message. There is still so much work to be done, and progress must continue. Brandon Teena was not the only victim, and he was not alone in his suffering and his abuse. We should all be doing more to usher in change and every voice deserves to be heard.
by Bee Garner
Bianca “Bee” Garner is a Film & Television Studies graduate, who is passionate about horror films, 1970s cinema, and documentaries. Her hero is Pauline Kael. She is currently the editor and founder of “In Their Own League” as well as a critic for Next Best Picture, Jumpcut Online, and VODzilla. Her favourite films include American Psycho, Clueless, Days of Heaven and Phantom Thread. You can find her over at Twitter at @thefilmB
Categories: Women Film-makers