In honor of Durango Pride this week, I’m recommending my favorite LGBTQ film: Kimberly Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999). Yes, it’s named after that song by The Cure, but here the title is a little more coy. The film is based on the tragic true story of Brandon Teena (played by Hilary Swank), an American trans man from Nebraska. Born a girl, Teena always felt like a boy, and eventually adopted a male identity. He was brutally raped and killed in 1993 by two male acquaintances. Be warned: “Boys Don’t Cry” doesn’t shy away from these particulars. It’s graphic and disturbing in parts, so I’d suggest a mellow indica to calm your nerves. But it is also a stirring and poignant depiction of marginalized life in a small town.
Swank won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for her harrowing portrayal of Brandon. She commits every atom of her body to the character, a gentle, humble soul who can’t quite live up to the rough-and-tumble machismo expected of him in middle America. The men surrounding Brandon treat women as playthings at best, and meat at worst. Brandon is the nicest guy in town, and he’s not even anatomically a guy.
The film’s cast is perfected with supporting performances by Peter Sarsgaard and Chloë Sevigny. Sarsgaard portrays John Lotter, Brandon’s good buddy and murderer; the genius of Sarsgaard’s John is that he seems personable, even likable. He’s troubled, sure, but all the characters are. They’re stuck in a town with nothing to do but sit in lawnchairs and swig beer or race with other cars along long, dark highways. John kills Brandon because he is terrified of something he doesn’t understand. He wants to wipe it out as quickly as possible.
Sevigny plays Lana, the girl Brandon falls in love with. Their white trash affair is sad and sweet. The loneliness of Nebraska – essentially it’s just endless crop fields – heightens the passion between them. The only thing these people have is each other. Lana works at a factory weighing spinach in the evenings; a glowing, churning behemoth of a building that lights up the night sky. This is probably the most beautiful power plant you’ll ever see on film.
Peirce paints the lazy, intimate details of insular rural life – but also presents the inherent danger and ignorance found there. This is a time and place where the language to describe and explain transsexuality doesn’t exist. The locals Brandon befriends come to fear and despise him once they discover his secret. Swank’s performance is so believable, Brandon’s idealism and pain so relatable, the character’s gender fails to matter. You’re just watching a person, and you feel for them.