20 – Boys Don't Cry

Well, they might not cry, but they sure get themselves in a whole mess of trouble. Especially if they’re not sure they want to be a boy. Brandon (Hillary Swank) has a sexual identity problem. She’s female, but she desperately wants to be a male. She cuts her hair short and picks up women in honkytonk bars in Lincoln, Nebraska as a way of dealing with her emotional problems. Of course, this sets her up for endless persecution by local rednecks (this movie does nothing to eliminate standard hillbilly/small-town stereotypes), and poor Brandon Teena (or Teena Brandon, her real name) suffers tremendous mental and physical anguish at the hands of those less understanding.

Brandon’s travails take her to Falls City, where she meets Lana (Chloe Sevigny, late of Kids) and Candace (Alicia Goranson). Brandon hangs out with her new friends, who also include Tom (Brendan Sexton III) and John (Peter Sarsgaard). They drink, they party, they try to outrun the cops in a mid-70’s Nova, and pretty much play the roles of Young People Gone Bad. How much you like these characters might depend on how much you identify with them – picture the gang from The Outsiders, for example. There’s not much original in these amoral, hell-raising characters; they paint a pretty ugly picture of small-town people. Think your family has problems? Just about every vice and bad character trait is evident in these people, probably doing more to lower outsiders’ opinions of rural America than any in any film in recent memory.

Needless to say, Brandon doesn’t tell anyone she’s female right away, which means that in true Hollywood fashion, those very same people who she’s come to know and trust – and yes, even love – aren’t going to be as trusting when they find out she’s female, rather than male. Haven’t we seen that a few times before? She can’t very well tell anyone right from the start, because then she runs the risk of their ridicule before they get a chance to know her. Ah, but this is a movie, even if it IS based on fact. So when she DOES have to tell them she’s a girl, of course most of them react rather negatively. And because this is a stereotypical small town, they react violently, too. I think I saw this before, when the movie was called Frankenstein.

Some of the persecution Brandon undergoes is a bit overdone, too – did we REALLY need a protracted, graphic rape scene? I realize that sometimes the audience needs to be shocked in order to be convinced of the character’s appeal, but this scene occurred rather late in the film, and by then the audience really should be on the lead character’s side.

And that brings up another little issue – the motivation of Brandon. I do understand that this is a person (based on a real-life person, too) who is completely at odds with herself – she has the female parts, but longs to be male – and that conflict causes her to seek pleasure and pain simply to survive. But most of her problems in this film are brought on by her own actions. It’s not as if Brandon is simply trying to fit in with the rest of the world – she actually pushes the envelope, almost challenging herself to survive, trying to see how far she can go before someone finds out. This isn’t a story of someone with a troubled past simply wanting to move on; this is a story of someone who’s a little different than everyone else, and wants to challenge herself, who almost dares others to discover her secret.

Don’t misunderstand me – this is a fine film, but it has its bad points, too. The first three-quarters of the film are riveting, although sometimes tough to watch. But the last quarter descends into a standard movie-of-the-week treatment of a pretty serious subject, and generally every character becomes a caricature. I watched countless stereotypes and cliches walk across my screen during that last quarter. It’s almost as if the screenwriters took an extended coffee break and someone from USA Networks filled in.

Another problem is the casting. Hillary Swank turns in some magnificent work (and really deserved her Oscar), but her casting was puzzling, at least from a physical standpoint. When she cuts her hair short in her guy-disguise, that’s about as male as she looks. For the bulk of the movie – in full guy-mode – she basically looks like someone’s underfed sister. She’s skinny and with a gigantic mouth. (And I saw her at the Oscars in female-mode – she’s really VERY attractive.) To me, she really didn’t look all that male – she just looked young. Now, I’m not sure what else the makers of this movie could have done to make Swank look more masculine, and of course this is based on a true story. Certainly, given the physical limitations of the role, Swank did a remarkable job.

All in all, it’s a good movie, thought-provoking at times. It’s just a shame so many white-trash stereotypes had to be thrown in there as well!

Boys Don’t Cry: 5

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