American Gothic 

*Boys Don't Cry (R)
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Director/screenwriter Kimberly Peirce's feature film debut is as assured as they come. Originally written as a master's thesis, Peirce took the tabloid headline story of Brandon Teena -- brutally murdered and raped in rural southeast Nebraska in 1993 when his true identity as a girl (Teena Brandon) was revealed to a couple of redneck ex-cons -- and turned it into a delicately nuanced character study of a charismatic, troubled and confused kid who wanted nothing more than to love and be loved.

The result is a must see for anyone who has ever been curious about the impulse to cross genders, and for anyone who doubts the persistence of hate crimes, driven by sexual identity issues, in America.

Hilary Swank is a revelation as Brandon, a cross-dresser whose newfound identity falls somewhere between teen heartthrob and strut-your-stuff cowboy. On the run from Lincoln to avoid prosecution for petty crimes, Brandon settles in Deadendsville, U.S.A., a.k.a. Falls City, where he is embraced as the freshest thing to hit town since the advent of karaoke. Swank's magnificent square jaw, huge, toothy smile and bright, curious eyes perfectly capture the wonder and the terror of Brandon's big adventure -- winning the affection of the townsfolk with his cunning male ways while guarding the fact that he is still, anatomically, a girl.

Brandon's love hungry eyes finally settle on Lana (Chloe Sevigny), a sloe-eyed strawberry blonde who knows she doesn't belong in Falls City and is soon seduced by his sweetness, his wild tales and his finely-tuned lovemaking. Unfortunately, her dysfunctional family circle includes John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III), both chronic losers who have little room in their imaginations for anything that exists outside of their beer-soaked, dust-coated existence; and for whom the notion of sexual ambiguity ranks at the top of the list of sins worthy of the death penalty.

Eventually, through a series of forged checks and an avalanching pile of lies, Brandon is discovered to be Teena, and though Lana's impulse is to stand by her "man," John and Tom quickly seek revenge for what they perceive as the ultimate betrayal -- first they rape a savagely unveiled Teena, and ultimately they kill her.

Boys Don't Cry is most remarkable for the way it draws the viewer into the lives of the characters. Sarsgaard's John is multi-dimensional -- frightening, vulnerable, desperately needy and unspeakably damaged. Sexton's Tom is a silent time bomb waiting to blow. Sevigny has that hardened, bored look that comes from growing up too soon, and Jeannetta Arnette, as her chain-smoking mother, wears the bruises of her troubled life upfront and center.

To walk away from Boys Don't Cry complaining that the people of Falls City, Nebraska, were unnecessarily stereotyped as ignorant cretins -- as some critics have done -- misses the point entirely. People driven to violent ends by ignorance and culturally begotten hatred and prejudice exist in every corner and crevice of the land of the free, and we best not forget it if we truly value liberty and justice for all.

But set that context aside when you go to see Boys Don't Cry. Instead, settle into the remarkable characters Peirce and her superb cast have created -- borrowed from real life and fully realized onscreen.

Filmed on a low budget, the film is notably artful in its depiction of the stark Nebraska landscape, and is blessed with a simply remarkable cast. Academy Award nominations for Swank and Sevigny were fully deserved, and my odds are on Swank to walk away with the prize, come Oscar night.


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