"With Love Always and Forever. Brandon." This is how young Brandon (Hilary Swank) signs his last letter to Lana (Chloe Sevigny). By the time Lana reads the letter the inevitable tragedy, towards which the film has been pointing with Shakesperean finality, has transpired. It was clear all along what would happen, who would have to die, who the killers would be and why they would do what they did. In a story that is re-creating a true-to-life sensational crime with which we are already familiar (Brandon Teena was indeed murdered in Nebraska in 1993) the results cannot possibly be altered. And yet an audience might find itself thinking Brandon could have avoided this whole mess very easily, if he had wanted to.
In 1993 Nebraska, as well as in director Kimberly Peirce’s movie, 21-year-old Teena Brandon has decided she doesn’t want to be Teena Brandon anymore, so she gets herself a very short haircut and moves to tiny Falls City, Nebraska. There she manages to convince the townsfolk that she is really Brandon Teena, a diminutive but dashing new boy in town. Brandon’s excellent portrayal of a cowboy draws the attention of lovely Lana, one of a host of teenagers stuck in dead-end lives in and around Falls City. Lana becomes as infatuated with Brandon as Brandon already is with her. Lana is flattered and amazed that Brandon is the only man she’s ever known who "really knows how to treat a woman."
If the citizens of Falls City’s real lives were anything like they are depicted in this film, it may be that it didn’t take much to fool Lana. She and the rest of her extended family and friends seem to do nothing but drink all day and night and pull cruel stunts upon one another. Hilary Swank is a convincing Brandon, with her square-jawed face and boyish mannerisms, but she certainly wouldn’t fool anyone who wasn’t willing to be fooled. Swank, who tucked her natural long blonde hair under a cowboy hat when she auditioned for the part, is intriguing on camera. One’s eyes are drawn to her, even though her sexual ambivalence can be disconcerting because it isn’t completely persuasive.
Sevigny’s role as Lana is equally demanding. She has to convince an audience she is a small town girl and also someone with a very open-minded attitude when it comes to sex. She pulls off the first part admirably, and comes close on the second. But it is a stretch to believe that a teenager, who has just discovered her boyfriend is not a boy, would not be at least partially shocked. Still, on the whole both Sevigny and Swank perform well in challenging roles.
Boys Don’t Cry confronts one of our romantic myths about ourselves – namely, that due to our rural heritage we tend to cherish the individual. In reality it generally has been only in a multicultural environment that the individual has been accepted; out in the more homogeneous heartland the individual has more often been viewed as a threat.
It is this threat that ultimately dooms Brandon Teena. The two ex-cons who rape and murder Brandon have been taken in by his disguise as well. Whether or not they could have accepted the real Teena Brandon, a gay girl, into their midst is an open question. But it is certainly true they cannot stand having been part of his deception. Brandon Teena has covered up the most basic truth about himself, and he will have to pay the highest price for it.
In 1993, in Falls City, Nebraska, Teena Brandon tried to re-invent herself into her own fantasy. In the end she failed, but not before she impacted the lives of many people. Boys Don’t Cry is a flawed but courageous attempt to bring some meaning to that real-life tragedy.