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Monday, May 26, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Boys Don't Cry (1999)

Director: Kimberly Pierce
Starring: Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny

To call Boys Don’t Cry an astonishing debut is something of an understatement. Throughout the film, director Kimberly Pierce shows remarkable control over the story, guiding doomed transsexual Brandon Teena towards an end that is as inevitable as it is tragic. The strength of the film is that it isn’t simply about Brandon, his struggles and his horrific end, but that in a more general sense it’s about all people stuck in small towns, forever trapped playing their small town roles, when all they want is to break free and make themselves something more.

Whenever I watch Boys Don’t Cry, I can’t help but notice the way that the characters – especially Brandon (Hilary Swank) and Lana (Chloe Sevigny) – are literally framed by their surroundings. They’re continually shot as if they’re trapped, photographed standing between door and window frames, between objects, between people. There are only a couple of scenes when Brandon and Lana are alone together when there is open space around them and they’re free, albeit briefly.

The performance by Hilary Swank has been hailed and rightly so. She won the Oscar, amongst other awards, and brings the right mixture of bravery and vulnerability to the role. But look closely at the performance by Chloe Sevigny. From her first appearance it’s obvious that Lana is a young woman who has already been deeply disappointed by life, who sees how little her town has to offer her, sees where she'll end up and how little she'll have to show for her life, but sees no way out and lacks the courage to try. Brandon is like a lifeline to her, someone who treats her with respect and encourages her to think beyond her small town. Does she suspect the truth about Brandon? I believe she does. During the first sex scene there's the suggestion that she sees Brandon's prosthesis. "I don't care," she tells him, but doesn't elaborate on what it is she doesn't care about. Ultimately, it isn't Brandon's physical gender that attracts her, and that's why she seeks him out after the brutal, humiliating revelation, and why she makes plans to leave town with him. Pierce is exploring a relationship that goes beyond the physical manifestation of gender, forcing us to ask ourselves what it is about him that makes Brandon a man that Lana can love.

The film is, of course, based on a true story, but it plays fast and loose with some facts (watch is alongside the documentary The Brandon Teena Story and you'll see what I mean). This is often presented as a criticism of the film, but I’ve never really seen it that way. The rape and murder of Brandon Teena plays a tremendous role in the film, but I've always thought that it's less about the literal truth of the crime itself than the more figurative truths about gender and identity that the crime brings to light. Brandon and Lana's relationship is one which transcends boundaries of gender and sexuality. This is never more apparent than in a scene towards the end, after the revelation, when Brandon lets Lana see his body (in the previous love scene, he remained clothed). "I don't know what to do," Lana says, alluding to how they'll go about having sex. "We'll figure it out," Brandon replies. It's a relationship that's beyond any easily definable categories; it can't simply be tagged as "gay" or "straight." By presenting Brandon and Lana’s relationship in such a sincere way, the film challenges traditional concepts of sexuality and gender, and questions their validity as normal or natural. Why do John and Tom kill Brandon? Is it because they're afraid he'll go to the police, or is it because they were fooled and don't want to face the fact that their ideas of what makes them "men" are poses that can be appropriated and are ultimately useless as "proof" of their masculinity? On the surface it's the former, but underneath lies the latter. If Brandon isn't a "real" man, but acts just like them and can be treated like a real man by Lana, then what are they? They'd rather kill him than have to answer that question.

Boys Don't Cry is a film that works on a number of levels. Watch it once for its take on gender politics. Watch it again for the human story at its heart, and the two brilliant performances at its centre that make it come alive.

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