Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton III
Director:  Kimberly Pierce
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  Audio Commentary, Trailers, TV Spots, Featurette
Length:  116 Minutes
Release Date:  April 18, 2000

Film ****

Falls City, Nebraska…one of the characters in Boys Don’t Cry neatly dismisses it:  “it ain’t even on the map.”  Because of the events of this film, that little place nestled seemingly in the middle of nowhere would make the map, and become spotlit in our national conscience.  It was a town that seemed like paradise to one who fell in love there, so much so that there was no hope of picking up on the warnings of just how quickly paradise would become a tragic nightmare.

First of all, I have no desire to throw any more fuel on the recent controversies surrounding the picture.  For the sake of making it easier to write (and hopefully to read), and based solely on the way the movie chose to focus, I will use the masculine pronouns in my review, and refer to the protagonist as Brandon Teena, the identity he chose for himself.

When we first see Brandon (Swank), he has finished getting his hair cut short.  He’s wearing men’s clothes, and seems both liberated and delighted by the loss of his born identity, that of a young woman named Teena Brandon.  And it takes only a few moments of film time for the audience to learn that Brandon is a person of great passion, but not a lot of common sense to go with it.  A group of angry guys surround his house, screaming and cursing and breaking out the windows.  They discovered his secret, and are none to keen about having been party to such a deception, particularly since Brandon had made off with a few of their girlfriends.

Either not understanding the danger he puts himself in, or not caring, he soon hooks up with some new friends, who take him out of his hometown of Lincoln and into Falls City.  They party, they bond, and soon, he’s just another one of them.  He even falls in love with the beautiful Lana (Sevigny), and convinces himself that it could be perfect between them, despite some obvious complications.

Brandon doesn’t see the hot water he’s in, though all the clues are there.  John (Sarsgaard) is an ex-con who lived on letters Lana wrote to him during his incarceration.  He “can’t control his impulses”, and it doesn’t take long for him to demonstrate that something’s seriously out of kilter with him.  His friend Tom (Sexton) has an odd fascination with fire and self mutilation.  But Brandon’s love for Lana seems to blind him to everything but her.

In one of the film’s most strangely beautiful scenes, he and Lana make love under the night sky, and this is intercut with sequences of Lana afterwards dreamily telling her girlfriends about it.  Brandon seems skillful enough to keep his secret hidden.  At first.  But there are strange moments of revelation, for lack of a better word.  Does Lana know the truth?  How much?  Is she reaching a point where she no longer cares?

But the best kept secrets eventually begin to come to light, and when they do, the movie becomes like a cold, dark, downward spiral with no bottom.  Things go quickly from bad to worse, and Brandon’s world begins to come apart.  Those he thought were his friends shame and humiliate him.  Lana’s mother, whom he even addressed as “mom”, suddenly can’t see a human being anymore, opting for the disgusting pronoun “it”. 

And John and Tom feel something worse has happened than simply being fooled.  Their manhood was challenged, and they avenge their pride in the most horrid and despicable way imaginable.  One of the most heartbreaking moments for me is when a weary, battered Brandon sits between her two assailants and says, “It’s my fault.”  It doesn’t get better…the cops she goes to for protection are less interested in the rape than in why she would choose to masquerade as a boy.

And so the film asks us, in none-too-subtle ways, by exactly what standard are we willing to measure our compassion for another person?  Is there enough room in our hearts to embrace the differences between us, or are our minds too narrow?  Brandon Teena’s murder rang out with that question, and it is still echoing out there, searching for its answer.

You’ve no doubt heard the tremendous accolades bestowed upon Hilary Swank for her performance as the gender bending Brandon—award after award, including the Golden Globe and the Oscar.  I can sum up her performance in a single word:  courage.  It’s almost unfathomable how demanding a role this was for an actress, both mentally and physically, requiring not only a convincing visual transformation but a willingness to harness deep heartache and confusion, and to expose it in front of the world in the most vulnerable way possible.  Ms. Swank is extraordinary in every aspect, and this is a performance you won’t forget.  Special mention must also go to Chloe Sevigny as Lana, a role replete with its own complications.  Her sincerity is perfect, and helps to bring about the right emotional mix for the story.

I first saw this film theatrically, and when I did, one aspect held me back from considering it a four star movie…I was disappointed that the essential Brandon remained something of an enigma, and that no attempts were made by the filmmakers to delve into what it was that made him decide not only to play the part of a boy, but to live it.  So much of his past was left in a murky haze of broken exposition, I felt like the picture had squandered an opportunity, to put this life upon the screen and yet, remain so distant from important parts of it.  The film celebrated Brandon’s life as that of one who had the courage to be true to himself without questioning what it was that made him who he was.  But the real life mother of Brandon has since argued that the movie missed a crucial point, that Teena became Brandon as a means of self preservation after suffering a terrible sexual assault in her youth…certainly nothing romantic about that.

Watching it a second time, I began to realize that the movie was never about why Brandon was, but simply who Brandon was.  And watching the interrogation scene again, I couldn’t help but think that the first time around, I had missed the point as much as the officers had.  Brandon was a human being, not a conversation piece.  He had his secrets, his pains, his fears, like we all do…and those things he kept to himself, and eventually took with him.

Video ***1/2

I’m happy to report that Fox made good with an anamorphic transfer for this title.  The video quality is surprisingly good, considering many low budget films tend to show their monetary limitations in the technical departments.  Images are sharp and crisp throughout, with no noticeable grain or break-up.  Colors are always natural looking and well rendered, with no bleeding, and under various lighting schemes, take on just the right shades and tones to enhance the mood.  I saw this movie on the big screen, and I think it looks even better on DVD.

Audio ***

This Dolby 5.1 track seems an excellent reproduction of the theatrical experience…which is to say, there were only sparing uses of the surround speakers and .1 channel.  Most of the action takes place with a good, detailed spread across the front, and the film’s excellent song score bring out most of the dynamics in the audio.  There are a few moments when the sound really opens up, like the strange car chase down the dusty night road, and a few instances of harsh and ugly crowd confrontations.  This isn’t meant to be the most overwhelmingly theatrical listening experience, but for what it is, there are no complaints.

Features ***

The disc contains a commentary track with director Amy Pierce, a very short featurette, and two each of trailers and TV spots.


Boys Don’t Cry is a true story that comes across almost as quietly surreal because of the inherent sadness, but remains grounded by the aspects of human nature that are the most repugnant, and often, far too real.  It is a superb accomplishment anchored by an astonishing lead performance and supporting cast.  It will be remembered as one of the best films of the 90’s.