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By Devin D. O'Leary

NOVEMBER 8, 1999:  It seems we hardly need to be reminded of what a harsh environment it can be here in America for people of differing races, religions or sexual orientations. And yet, every few years, another horrifying example of hate crime raises its ugly head to show us that -- hey -- maybe we aren't as tolerant a nation as we'd like to believe. Back in 1993, one of the most bizarre examples of a homophobic hate crime occurred when two ex-cons from Nebraska murdered their good friend Brandon Teena. Soon enough, the residents of their small town learned the truth. Brandon Teena -- the playful rebel, the loyal pal, the irresistible romancer of ladies -- was in fact Teena Brandon, a gender-bending juvenile delinquent whose sexual masquerade inspired a murderous rage.

Now freshman writer/director Kimberley Pierce has turned this shocking murder into an absorbing true crime film in the blunt, earthy vein of Terence Malick's Badlands and Richard Brooks' In Cold Blood. Pierce takes her documentary-feel narrative one step further, though, finding the mythic weight of the story lurking underneath the headlines. More than just a tale of gender confusion, Boys Don't Cry relates a much broader human wish -- the desire, the burning need to be someone else. Who among us hasn't, at one time or another, wanted to escape their roots, to flee their past, to break out of their shell and become a whole new person? Boys Don't Cry traces the mischievous glee of becoming someone else and the frightening consequences of living a lie.

The film's script follows Teena (Hillary Swank) from the moment she decides to cut her hair and pass herself off as a male full-time. Now dubbed Brandon, the willowy boy soon lights out from his stifling hometown of Lincoln (venturing as far as neighboring Falls City) to start a new life. He finds a receptive (perhaps gullible) audience and is soon seducing the local girls (including Chloë Sevigny of Kids) and palling up with some of the roustabout local boys (Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III). Unfortunately, it is these new friendships that will ultimately lead to Brandon's harsh, tragic downfall.

Though few could have predicted it from her résumé (including a turn as moviedom's first Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a stint as The Next Karate Kid), Hillary Swank throws herself into the role of Brandon with positively Herculean effort. Swank's physical transformation is startling, not just in look but in manner. The method acting she employed in bringing Brandon to life was so complete that Swank has admitted it took several weeks to "purge Brandon" from her system. Swank's performance here is nearly impossible to shake. If members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences succeed in shaking it and fail to nominate Swank for an Oscar, then Hollywood is seriously asleep at the wheel this year.

As scripted and acted, Brandon Teena emerges a living, breathing human paradox -- a sexually confused young girl on the one hand, and a deeply self-aware young man on the other. After going through the regular morning transformation -- binding breasts, stuffing pants and primping in front of the mirror -- Brandon admits to his own reflection, "I'm an asshole." Brandon knows quite well that he's toying with people, lying to the very folks he calls friends. In the end, speaking the truth to his girlfriend for the first time, Brandon confesses, "Once, a long time ago, I was a girly-girl. Then, I was a boy-girl. Then ... I was just a jerk."

As shown by the film's deeply incisive narrative, Brandon wasn't simply a girl who was attracted to females. There were plenty of options for Brandon to take, including a full-scale sex change operation. Instead, Brandon chose to play a dangerous game. It's not surprising, really, that a host of small town girls found Brandon such a good catch. He was kind, seductive and attractive in a boyish way. But Brandon's masquerade went far beyond a simple attempt to hide sexual identity in order to indulge sexual preference. Early on, the film establishes that Brandon is a person who isn't afraid to be living on the edge, isn't afraid to push his or her luck. Over time, Brandon's lies escalate, burying his own past (including some serious criminal behavior) to the point at which there is no turning back.

Certainly there is no defense for the two men who murdered Brandon once his/her deception was uncovered, but Boys Don't Cry posits a far more complex explanation than simple homophobia. John (frighteningly thesped by Sarsgaard) and Tom (Sexton) act largely out of the feelings that everyone in Falls City seems to harbor -- the confusion and anger over being lied to. The film's extended final moments are wrapped in a brutal reality that is, at once, hard to watch and difficult to shy away from. It is never, for a moment, difficult to believe the sincerity of this film, its motivations or its characters.

Boys Don't Cry is a soul-shakingly honest portrait of violence and anger in the heartland of America. It's also one of the most moving, sympathetic character studies ever glued to movie stock. The truth may not be pretty, but as the wise man once said, it will set you free -- an axiom that Brandon Teena learned far too late.

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