Falls City, Nebraska, population 5000, is a small tight-knit community where the majority of residents are white, and the available pool of blue-collar jobs is scarce. This small town, otherwise just another dot on the map of rural America, leapt into the public eye on December 30, 1993, when 21-year old Teena Brandon, and two of her friends, Lisa Lambert and Philip Devine, were murdered by John Lotter and Tom Nissen. This incident was merely the final chapter in the chaotic life of Brandon, who had been living as a man, 'Brandon Teena', while undergroing hormone treatments in anticipation of a sex change operation. Shortly before her murder, Lotter and Nissen discovered the truth about Brandon, and they reacted violently by kidnapping and raping her. When Brandon reported the incident to the local sheriff's department, the two men decided to solve their problem with a gun.
In addition to making national headlines, the events surrounding Brandon's murder were detailed in the 1998 documentary "The Brandon Teena Story". The film examined how the environment of pervasive intolerance and homophobia in which Brandon lived contributed to the murders, both in the actions of Lotter and Nissen, as well as through the indifference and ineffectiveness of law enforcement officials that investigated her initial assault.
1999 saw another film based on the Teena Brandon murders, "Boys Don't Cry", an independent production that dramatized the events leading up to the night of December 30th, a sobering testament to the young woman's final days. In its two-hour running time, we are introduced to Brandon (Hilary Swank, former regular on "Beverly Hills 90210"), who has a tragic weakness to become involved with every fetching young woman that comes her way-- an early run-in with a gang of youths serves as a prelude to the violence that will come later. We also get to know Lana (Chloe Sevigny, seen recently in "American Psycho"), a young woman who becomes romantically involved with Brandon, and her mother (Jeanetta Arnette, seen recently on the TV miniseries "The 70s"), who become an instigator of the murders. Brandon's friend Candace (Alicia Goranson) is a composite of real-life victims Lambert and Devine. Finally, Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard of "The Man in the Iron Mask") and Nissen (Brendan Sexton III of "Welcome to the Dollhouse") are the two rednecks who befriend Brandon and end up perpetrating the hate crime.
"Boys Don't Cry" is an unsettling film, and director Kimberley Peirce doesn't hold any punches when it comes to depicting the chaotic lifestyle of Brandon and the tragedy that eventually befalls her. Despite the subject matter and the well-publicized outcome, "Boys Don't Cry" is still riveting to watch, which is partly due to the powerful performances-- while it may not be as factual as the preceding documentary, the assembled actors are able to unleash the emotional truth of the story.
The surprising Best Actress Oscar that Swank received for her portrayal of Brandon is well-deserved-- not only does she bear a striking resemblance to the real Teena Brandon, but her transformation into a woman passing herself off as a man is startling, even down to details such as her gait. Despite the reckless and possibly alien lifestyle that her character leads, it is difficult not to be drawn into Swank's portrayal of a confused and often-scared young woman. Though Sevigny certainly displays less range than Swank, her performance as Brandon's lover is nonetheless stirring and effective. Finally, Sarsgaard and Sexton are positively chilling as Brandon's impulsive and bigoted murderers.
"Boys Don't Cry" doesn't have a happy ending, and there is little to feel good about after sitting through such a disquieting experience. Mind you, the purpose of "Boys Don't Cry" is not to entertain. Instead, it is a powerful motion picture that deconstructs a type of crime that is reported somewhere in the United States on an average of four times a day, 365 days per year... maybe with the hope of helping people recognize and prevent such a tragedy from happening again, in their own community.