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The Brandon Teena story

By Scott Heller

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  In nowheresville Nebraska, Brandon Teena was the coolest guy around. Small in stature, he'd stand up to bullies who harassed a girl minding her own business at a bar. He could take a beating, dust himself off, and ask for more. The next day he'd wear his shiner like a badge of honor.

And, man, when it came to girls, Brandon could walk the walk and talk the talk. He had a smile like the high beams on a Cadillac, and a jawline worthy of a baby Marine. For all his braggadocio, though, he knew what girls really liked -- the little gifts, the sweet whispers, the tender way of making love.

The only this is, Brandon Teena wasn't Brandon at all. He was Teena Brandon, a confused teenager who spent a few reckless, glorious years pretending to be a boy, seducing a girl named Lana and an entire community along the way. Then the shit hit the fan. This truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story exploded into national news in 1993, when two ex-cons were arrested for the Christmas-eve rape and murder of Brandon/Teena.

From the grim wake of a hate crime, first-time director Kimberly Peirce has fashioned a harrowing yet often lyrical film. For better and worse, Peirce considers Brandon Teena a hero -- a girl who transcended her crummy circumstances to make just the life she wanted and was punished for it. Whether Brandon was a lesbian who couldn't deal or a transsexual who couldn't afford the operation is beside the point to Peirce and co-screenwriter Andy Bienen. Aided by a tremendous performance by Hilary Swank, they depict Brandon as Thelma, Louise, and James Dean rolled into one -- an American outlaw fearlessly crossing the gender frontier.

Boys Don't Cry smartly dispenses with the details of impersonation at the start. We meet Brandon as he's about to meet a girl for a date at the roller rink. Despite warnings from his cousin, Brandon is committed to the ruse. Hair cut short, a sock stuffed down below, he checks himself in the mirror and likes what he sees. Known (if she's known at all) for throwaway roles in The Next Karate Kid and Beverly Hills 90210), Swank is a revelation as Brandon. The key to the characterization: Brandon doesn't just want to be a boy -- he wants to be a cowboy. Swank nails the cocksure attitude, Brandon's ability to lie and cheat his way out of any mess. But through nervous glances and overeager smiles, the actress lets you see Brandon's nagging fear that the whole charade will fall apart.

As the film proceeds toward its inexorable conclusion, I wondered whether Brandon Teena could have escaped his fate had he hopped a Greyhound and headed to New York. Instead, his horizons went no farther than Nebraska. When life gets uncomfortable in Lincoln, he hits the road and ends up in the even more godforsaken Falls City. There he falls in with a misshapen family of outsiders who offer comfort and, ultimately, spell his doom. Looked after by the lady everyone calls Mom (a bruised Jeannetta Arnette), Brandon becomes a sidekick to John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III), a pair of criminal waste cases who drift in and out of Mom's home. Brandon's fatal mistake is to fall in love with Lana Tisdel (Chloë Sevigny), Mom's daughter and John's on-and-off girlfriend. Slouchy and sloe-eyed, Sevigny plays Lana like Veronica Lake chained to a trailer park. She's the girl who knows this is nowhere and hopes that Brandon can be her ticket to somewhere, anywhere else. Peirce stages their meeting, courtship, and sex as otherworldly. Time stops when Brandon watches Lana aimlessly sing karaoke with her friends. It's Romeo and Juliet all over again when he gazes from below as she smokes a cigarette in the blue glow of the factory where she works nights.

The film's penchant for romanticizing Brandon and Lana is both its most audacious move and its biggest problem. A 1997 documentary called The Brandon Teena Story took the opposite tack, tersely chronicling the before-and-after of a shocking crime. I found it seriously unsatisfying; it never really explained what made Brandon tick and how he pulled off his biggest tricks. Boys Don't Cry creates a compelling Brandon and even a Lana you can believe would stand by him despite mounting evidence of his deceptions. But the film's dreamy streak made me uncomfortable; the story of Brandon Teena is as sad as they come, not a cause for any kind of rejoicing.

Don't get the wrong idea: a film that culminates in a ferocious rape and devastating murder is by no means celebratory. Yet Peirce closes Boys Don't Cry with the image of Lana behind the wheel, highway lights streaking as she races away to somewhere better. An end title tells us otherwise: the real Lana Tisdel ended up pretty much back where she started, with a baby in tow and without Brandon Teena to persuade her that dreams were worth holding onto.

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