On Tuesday morning, while flipping channels to find out the Oscar nominations, I briefly landed on "Maury Povich," where the host had gathered a collection of transsexuals and nontranssexuals. Each guest strutted his/her stuff, and then Maury asked the audience its opinion: male or female? The amazing thing about the show was that everybody seemed to be having a grand ol' time. When a guy with a close-shaven beard pulled up his pants leg and revealed the word "WOMAN" running down his hairy calf, the crowd erupted in cheers and laughter. Sure, it was a circus sideshow, but at least no one was shooting at the Bearded Lady. I only wish that Brandon Teena, née Teena Brandon, could have seen the program. He might have used it to find a way out of his own gender "confusion." Instead, Brandon was beaten up, raped and killed. The enigma of desire is at the heart of Kimberly Peirce's disturbingly engrossing Boys Don't Cry, which tells the true-life story of a Nebraska boy trapped in a Nebraska girl's body. Or should I say "strapped," since Brandon used a strap-on dildo when the situation called for it? Often, the situation didn't. An ardent lover who showered his girlfriends with cards and flowers and teddy bears, Brandon knew how to please a woman, if only because he was one. And he might have pulled it off for a long, long time--first in Lincoln, then in the small town of Falls City--if his rebellious streak hadn't kept leading to run-ins with the law. And if he hadn't gotten mixed up with a couple of sociopaths who didn't take very kindly to having their notions of "male" and "female" tossed up in the air, like a mobile home in a twister. Dubbed "a female Crying Game" by no less an authority than "A Current Affair," Brandon's story seems tailor-made for tabloid TV. All the elements are there: sexual transgression, murder, white trash. But Peirce, who also wrote the script with Andy Bienen, brings a rare sensitivity to this trailer-park tragedy. Shot mostly at night, the movie uses high-contrast photography to engulf its characters in the vast darkness of the Nebraska plains, heightening our fear that Brandon can't possibly get out alive. It also shows us why he might not want to. Chloe Sevigny, in a performance that's caught Oscar's eye, is Lana, a languid beauty who sees Brandon as her ticket out of this cowpoke town. A tough cookie on the outside, Lana's a little unbaked on the inside, and Sevigny beautifully nails both sides of the character--the strength and the longing. As Brandon, Hilary Swank (who's also been noticed by Oscar) gives a wonderful gender-bending performance, never losing sight of the fact that there's a little girl under there somewhere. With her close-cropped hair, her killer cheekbones and her megawatt smile, Swank could pass for Matt Damon's little brother...or sister. Only with her breasts wrapped in an Ace bandage and a tube sock stuffed down her pants does she enter that militarized zone between male and female--not quite one and not quite the other, which is exactly where the real Brandon wound up, judging by photographs. But what Swank perfectly captures is Brandon's Peter Pan-like desire to remain a boy forever, and the price he was willing to pay to do it. A courageous performer if there ever was one, Swank endures stuff that would land many actors in the hospital.
Like Brandon, the movie is a real heartbreaker, causing us to fall for this cocky little stud and then peeling away his manhood, one layer at a time. To her credit, Peirce makes a heroic attempt to play fair with Brandon's ladykiller friends (Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III), and the result is a pair of performances stunning in their authenticity. Sociopaths being both too difficult and too easy to explain, Peirce doesn't even try, just follows the trail of their thoughts and actions. Nor does she impose an explanation on Brandon, just accepts him for what he is, which is what Brandon would have done if everybody else had. He wasn't confused about his sexual identity, society was. And if Boys Don't Cry shows us the costs of such confusion, it also shows us how important it was for this battle-scarred soldier of love to be all he could be.