Boys Don’t Cry: The ballad of Brandon Teena

Gender outlaw as romantic hero.

AS STAR-CROSSED LOVERS go, Brandon and Lana rival Shakespeare’s originals. Their relationship was both doomed and inevitable, a romantic tragedy played out in Nebraska’s dusty hinterland. That’s the premise of this powerful new film, based on the extraordinary life of the real Brandon Teena, who charmed the pants off a slew of girls before meeting a violent end on New Year’s Eve, 1993.

Boys Don’t Cry

directed by Kimberly Peirce

starring Hilary Swank and Chlo렓evigny

opens October 29 at Broadway Market

On the run after one too many stolen checks, Brandon landed in Falls City, Lana’s tiny hometown. This handsome stranger won over her small circle of hard-partying friends. The women doted on him; the men, petty criminals by trade, treated him like a little brother. Then they found out that Brandon had lied to them: He was anatomically a she. In a blind rage, the ex-cons raped the masquerading girl, and a few days later, fearing discovery of their crime, killed her and two of her friends.

Fodder for mass-market paperbacks and grad school theses, Brandon’s story contains all the elements of great American tragedy: A heroic misfit adrift in the heartland; reckless sexual passion; a brutal multiple murder. Add the implications of all these “normal” girls falling for another girl, and you’ve got a hero too remarkable for fiction. If Brandon hadn’t actually existed, it would be necessary to invent him.

Instead, first-time director Peirce traveled to Falls City and interviewed everyone from the county sheriff to the real-life Lana. She convincingly recreates the desperate connections among Lana (Chlo렓evigny), her mother, and their fellow “wall people” (so named for their habit of lounging against the wall of the local Qwik Mart). At first a welcome novelty, Brandon (Hilary Swank) quickly becomes part of this very ’90s family. Hour after wasted hour, they share shots, drive drunk, sing karaoke. When things get really boring, there’s bumper-skiing, a “sport” involving a pick-up truck, two ropes, and a surplus of foolhardiness. It’s life from one paycheck—or car theft—to the next, horizons limited to what’s visible from the Qwik Mart parking lot.

A CERTAIN AMOUNT of whimsy colors Peirce’s cinematic Nebraska. She relishes the trailer-park milieu, where everyone wields a cigarette and a cocktail like characters out of Noel Coward. Clouds race across the time-lapsed sky; the highway blurs with the vibrant hues of cars speeding out of town. Yet these phantasmal images also reflect Brandon’s uncanny ability to see possibility everywhere. As one of his future murderers notes, “You don’t need to do drugs, Brandon. Everyday life is enough hallucination for you.”

If Brandon is the film’s soul, Lana is its heart. Emotional intimacy transforms her stoned, sullen exterior into luminescence. Much of the movie’s success belongs to the utterly convincing Sevigny (Kids, The Last Days of Disco) and Swank (a refugee from Beverly Hills 90210). Armed with a square jaw and toothy grin, Swank embodies Brandon’s skill at being all things to all people, while Sevigny finally proves that her talent is more than just being in the right film at the right time.

Though she downplays the real Brandon’s habit of stealing checks and ATM cards from his girlfriends, Peirce doesn’t shy away from the logistics of his physical deception. Yet Brandon’s own conviction that he’s male renders anatomical facts surprisingly beside the point. By the time the horrific murder scene plays out, any interest in what’s between his legs seems prurient; who needs a detailed description of Romeo and Juliet’s wedding night? Like most bio-pics, Boys Don’t Cry romanticizes its subject, but it also resonates with emotional, if not literal, truth.