Boys Don't Cry
(1999, USA, English, 118 min)
Reviewed by Bruce Kogan
At the tender of age 21 it was all over for Brandon Teena as young Teena Brandon had presented himself to the world. Two young men murdered him in the small town of Humboldt, Nebraska, unable to cope with the existence of someone outside of the norms they were carefully taught. The world took little notice of Brandon's passing back then. But when the relatively inexpensive production of Boy's Don't Cry got rave reviews resulting in an first Oscar for Hilary Swank, his story became known the world over.
It's only been in the past decade that the transgender right movement spun out on its own from the general gay/lesbian civil rights cause. Stories like Brandon Teena's or Gwen Araujo's or one of Moses Preston Waller, a case that I was familiar with back in my working days at the New York State Crime Victims Board have brought the ugliest manifestation of discrimination that transgendered people face, that of loss of life. A terrible price to raise the consciousness of the general public.
Teena Brandon was born in Lincoln, Nebraska a biological woman and moved to Humboldt later on where she reversed her name and presented himself to the public as Brandon Teena. It's what Brandon saw inside himself, what he felt to the depths of his soul. As a man he won and wooed a woman played in the film by Chloe Sevigny, but some of the redneck crowd Brandon hung out with suspected something afoot. Including some of Chloe Sevigny's relatives.
The brutal rape and killing of Brandon Teena is probably only comparable to the honor killings that are sanctioned by some extreme branches of Islam. It was as if their own honor, their own sense of masculine self was compromised by him even touching a woman. They reaffirmed their flagging masculinity with rape and purged the family of dishonor with a homicide. And they felt totally justified in doing it which is the real scary part.
When I was a kid of eleven I remember when it was a foregone conclusion that Susan Hayward would be an Oscar winner for I'll Cry Tomorrow. Years later it was also concluded for Jack Palance for Supporting Actor in City Slickers. The only other time odds weren't even given in an Oscar race for Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry. In the memory of most of the movie-going public this was something that just didn't happen. But Hilary Swank pulled something from the depths of her own soul, that's something seen a few times in a life when she played Brandon Teena.
For me, Boy's Don't Cry was a cathartic experience that I had never had before watching a film. It was brilliant, but terribly painful. I said at the time I probably would never see the film again, but I did in order to write this commentary. It was just as cathartic as before and even more so after the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance which I participated in my town of Buffalo, New York.
Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny and the rest of the cast and crew have made an enduring classic. This review is dedicated with reverence to the life of Moses Preston Waller who questioned the package God put his soul in and like Brandon Teena paid for those questions with his life at too young an age.