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Review by Jay Rittenberg

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Directed by: Kimberly Peirce
Written by: Kimberly Peirce and Andy Bienen
Starring: Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, and Brendan Sexton III

Of the films you see in a year, only a few will make you cringe. You know the ones - powerful films that you're so into that at one point or another you squirm or look away. The gut wrenching Dead Man Walking, with its terrific work by both Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, is one such example. And American History X's mesmerizing performance by up and comer Edward Norton could easily have given anyone a good case of whiplash during some scenes. Now you can add writer/director Kimberly Peirce's intensely disturbing independent effort Boys Don't Cry to this list.

Unfortunately, like almost everyone else out there, I didn't get the chance to see this haunting film when it was originally released in theaters. What I really missed out on seeing is the performance of a lifetime by Hilary Swank on the big screen. In retrospect, I can't believe that I actually thought that the Academy (due to the momentum of American Beauty at the time) would award Annette Bening - talented though she is - an Oscar. After now finally catching this film on home video, I can see how the former Beverly Hills 90210 performer deservedly prevented a Beauty sweep last March. What we have here is a can't-take-your-eyes-off-her performance in a can't-keep-your-eyes-on-it movie.

Boys Don't Cry is a high-impact films. Because of its graphic nature, it is not only hard to watch but it's certainly not for everyone. What really gives the film its edge is when it gets compared to a movie like Best Picture winner American Beauty. Both tell tragic stories that self-destruct right before our eyes. The major difference between the two (besides the fact that Beauty caught commercial/mainstream attention and Boys did not) is that Boys was based on an actual true tragedy and Beauty was not.

Peirce's Little Film That Could tells the story of the life of Teena Brandon (Swank), a 21-year-old woman who preferred to live as a man. Teena likes women, she's not a lesbian. Passing as a man brings Brandon Teena to the point of true happiness - and serious problems. He is determined to meet the right girl, but not everyone in his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, understands or appreciates his needs or desires, making him flee to Falls City, Nebraska, in search of a new start. He's looking to fit in and make friends, to be loved and to find love.

At the start, it looks like Teena might have found the caring atmosphere that he was craving. He meets and gets along well with Tom (Brendan Sexton III) and John (Peter Sarsgaard), two of the local boys, as well as Lana (Chloe Sevigny from Kids and Last Days of Disco fame), with whom he eventually falls in love. The reason he gets along so well with everyone at the start is because he never stops taking whatever risk is necessary to fit in and be accepted. With time, Lana returns Brandon's affection because even though he is the ultimate risk taker, he is also the most loving and compassionate person she has ever met in a place where those key human components are sorely missing.

Unfortunately (and sadly) Brandon's secret is eventually discovered and he soon realizes that the same people (excluding Lana) who came to befriend him are not as accepting and forgiving as he would have hoped. Subsequently, this caring but confused youngster is brutally raped and murdered by the same people whom he thought were friends.

Boys Don't Cry is an important film. It's a picture with a topic that Hollywood rarely covers and invites us contemplate that subject in a compassionate way. Italso forces us to constantly ask some tough questions. No matter what anyone is specifically thinking about, it always seems to boil down to one word: why? Why was Teena Brandon so unfairly judged? Who in the world appointed John Lotter or Tom Nissen to be her judge, jury, and executioner? Why didn't Teena get the chance to live her life to the fullest? Why did ignorance and hatred conquer over love in such a horrible way?

What you'll appreciate about Peirce and co-writer Andy Bienen's film is that you'll also easily find yourself directing a lot of your questions in the direction of Teena. Why did she take so many gambles with her life? Didn't she know any better? There's no Hollywood sugarcoating going on here, which makes this an even more believable film. Teena was not too sharp,actually: a pretty foolish young woman, who was also a petty criminal, a user, and an abuser. The filmmakers didn't paint her as a role model, while at the same time she's portrayed as a compassionate and loving person who simply wanted to overcome life's challenges and find true happiness.

The main reason why you cannot stop coming up with a surplus of adjectives for this film is thanks to the fine work of the young cast. For starters, you can just taste the hate coming from the characters portrayed by Brendan Sexton and Peter Sarsgaard. They're the kind of guys who belonged in Deliverance and are in desperate need of a good bow-and-arrow job to the head.

Chloe Sevigny (who continues to shine) was a perfect complement to Swank's protagonist. She gave us a tough but tender portrayal of the one person who would mean the most to our hero. Not all actors can use close-ups. Sevigny was meant for the camera to zoom in on her beautiful face and haunting eyes. She's can say so much without saying a word. When she discovers the truth (whatever that is) and stays with her lover, you can read the range of emotions right off of her face. A good piece of supportive acting with a tough role to nail.

Much has been said about Swank's deserving, Oscar-winning headlining effort. I wouldn't be able to add much except to say that (thanks to the actress) I felt that I met and got to know Teena Brandon and Brandon Teena. She made me believe that despite all the problems and hardships, the person she portrayed always strove to find joy in any situation.

Boys Don't Cry is a tragic love story. Brandon and Lana's love was something beautiful to watch. Unfortunately, it (and Teena's life) ended abruptly. Why? Because some people out there didn't understand it, couldn't tolerate it, and had to do something about it.

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