Boys Don't Cry (1999)

Like many based-on-a-true-story movies - and most of them are unhappy pictures that end in court or the morgue - this has the feel of a car accident in slow motion, putting the audience in the position of a helpless spectator as a situation gets out of control and a central character rushes towards doom. Here, the real-life model is Brandon Teena, aka Teena Brandon, a girl who underwent a 'crisis of sexual identity' and passed for a boy - codifying her identity as male rather than transgendered or lesbian - finding a centredeness as a guy she didn't have as a foul-up misift girl. Brandon (Hilary Swank, in a remarkable performance) is especially popular with girls because she is better at being a gentleman than the midwestern redneck guys whom she hangs about with and enters into a sincere relationship with straight Chloe Sevigny that nevertheless inevitably pays off in tragedy as the 'imposture' is exposed and a small knot of guys turn on her, raping and eventually murdering her not so much out of homophobia as resentment at being outmanned and deceived. It alternates sweetly lyrical in the fragile love scenes, which are remarkably frank about the processes of sexual impersonation, and the horrific, with the outbursts of violence paying off on a suspenseful build-up and the central violation - the rape, of course, not the murder - an especially upsetting sequence, as much for the casualness of the thugs who feel themselves justified as for the hero/heroine's sufferings, while the climactic killing is as confused and messy, with collateral victims and mixed intentions between the two killers. What is indicted here is a want of empathy that runs deep - director Kimberley Peirce can be accused of demonising the attitudes of poor white trash men while their young women are madonnas (Sevigny's mother, however, is resolutely bigoted, perhaps because she flirted so heavily with Brandon), though this is more the story of an idyll inevitably broken than an indictment of the bigots. Swank commands attention with a remarkably subtle performance that rarely takes the easy out, showing how Brandon's intransigence and commitment to a make-over identity inevitably contributes to her fate.

First published in this form here.

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