When Hilary Swank won an Academy Award for her extraordinary performance in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999), it guaranteed that the film would reach a much wider and more mainstream audience despite its controversial subject matter. The film’s commercial success accomplished Peirce’s goal of raising consciousness about hate-crimes in this country by dramatizing the story of Teena Brandon, a twenty-one-year-old biological woman who passed herself off as a man (Brandon Teena) until she was raped and murdered by two ex-cons in rural Nebraska in 1993 after they discovered the subterfuge. A Romeo and Juliet tragedy with a gender-bender twist, Boys Don’t Cry’s greatest strength as a film has to do with its quick dramatic setup and its ability to make us side emotionally with Brandon, who, despite his reckless naiveté, manages to win our hearts through his energetic attempts to reinvent himself and his steadfast refusal to be bound by the restrictions of biological gender.
Boys Don’t Cry presents the love story between Brandon and Lana as an ecstatic, other-worldly quest. The opening montage, which consists of proleptic images from the drag-racing scene later in the film, serves as a metaphor for Brandon’s burning desire for freedom from the constraints of the world. We see a time-lapse of a rural landscape with cars speeded up so that they appear as streams of light. This is followed by shots of the highway, out-of-focus circles of light, two cars racing down the road, Brandon’s eyes in the rearview mirror, the game of “chicken” as one car pulls ahead, Brandon smiling, shots of the moving road, Brandon’s eyes darting around, more lights, then swirling dust with a police car in soft focus, and moving night clouds. Rock music blares on the soundtrack, while credits have been interspersed throughout.
The camera tilts down from the clouds to a trailer park. We hear someone insisting “shorter,” then we see Teena, an androgynous young person with chiseled features, getting a haircut. Teena slicks down her hair and smiles happily at her new image in the mirror. The short haircut has transformed Teena from a woman into a man: “Brandon.” Lonny, his gay cousin, comments on the huge bulge in Brandon’s pants. Brandon removes a rolled-up pair of socks from his crotch to adjust the proportions. Lonny comments, “If you was a guy, I might even wanna fuck you.” Brandon corrects him, “You mean if you was a guy you’d wanna fuck me.” Lonny responds with a dialogue hook, “So you’re a boy, now what?”
The scene cuts to the parking lot of a roller skating rink. Lonny tries to dissuade Brandon from going inside, but Brandon is far too psyched to listen. Lonny grabs the cowboy hat off Brandon’s head and comments that it makes him look like an idiot. Insisting he has a date inside, Brandon goes in and meets Nicole, who seems to accept the fact that he’s a boy. Afterwards, Brandon escorts Nicole home and kisses her in front of her house, which leaves him in ecstasy. We go back to the opening image of the time-lapse landscape. The camera tilts up to the swirling night clouds, then black. The sound of thunder. We hear angry men’s voices, as rain pours down on the trailer park. A title announces: “Lincoln Nebraska 1993.” Brandon races into the trailer park with several guys chasing after him. One of them yells: “You fucking dyke.” Once inside the trailer, Brandon locks the door, as the guys pound on the door and call him a “fucking faggot.” This upsets Lonny, who tries to reason with Brandon: “You’re not a boy.” Brandon responds, “Tell them that. I’m the best boyfriend they ever had.” Brandon vacillates between exuberance and fear. Lonny asks: “Then why don’t you just admit you’re a dyke?” Taken aback, Brandon answers, “Because I’m not a dyke.” Glass breaks. Lonny takes the money Brandon owes him out of his wallet and kicks him out.
Boys Don’t Cry needs only a mere six minutes to set up its dramatic premise, which centers on Brandon’s risky attempts to pass himself off as a man. After Lonny throws him out, Brandon stumbles into the white-trash world of the Falls City crowd. Brandon’s instant infatuation with Lana when she sings karaoke at the bar provides the motivation for the first turning point. This involves his impulsive decision to stay in Falls City and to become “one of the guys” rather than return to Lincoln as he had planned. Whereas the karaoke scene suggests an internal change in terms of Brandon’s character, the first turning point represents a conscious decision on Brandon’s part to pursue his romantic quest, which occurs about 17 minutes into the film. Although this is unusually early for a first turning point to occur, the event actually happens on page 26 of the shooting script, which provides a lot more background detail about Brandon’s past life.
Peirce and Andy Bienen’s shooting script shows him working as a dishwasher in a restaurant. It also includes information about Brandon’s mother and her boyfriend, his older sister, and five-year-old nephew. The scene where Brandon meets Nicole (who’s called Heather in this version) at Skate World is also elaborated on, including Brandon’s reluctance to have actual sex. In a shopping mall in Lincoln, Brandon’s family discovers him walking arm in arm with Heather, which blows his cover. The scene ends with Brandon getting caught by a security guard after he steals a ring from a jewelry store. When Brandon calls Heather and her mother threatens to call the cops, family pictures are visible, including one of Brandon’s father as a young man on a motorcycle. After the scene where men chase Brandon into Lonny’s trailer for stealing a woman’s credit card, Brandon receives sex-change information at a post office box. He then steals a car, goes for a joy ride with a fifteen-year-old girl, and ends up getting caught by the cops, setting up the later court date. The film thus condenses a great deal of exposition found in the original shooting script, which accounts for the discrepancy of where the first turning point occurs.
In an interview with Sight and Sound, Kimberly Peirce discusses the decision to excise the backstory and not to explain Brandon’s transgenderism as an attempt to go against the conventions of the biopic:
“To me movies are about great main characters and one event. I welcome anybody changing the form, but for me anything that gets in the way of the story shouldn’t be there. And knowing Brandon was destroyed for not being understood, I needed to bring him to life in a way that was universally understandable. How could I do that? Not through a biopic. You do that by creating a unified event, by having him stand in front of the mirror getting ready to go out. Gay or straight, male or female, you understand that.”
There were other practical considerations as well, which Peirce delineates in the same interview:
“There were a million different openings – the first cut was three hours long and started with Teena in her trailer, Teena at her dishwashing job, Teena at the skating rink. And people were fascinated, but two feelings emerged: ‘Can we know more about Teena?’, which sent me backwards when I needed to go forwards, and ‘I didn’t realise until half way this was a love story.'”
The love story between Brandon and Lana develops in gradual stages during the middle act, culminating in their intense and extended lovemaking in the field after he visits her at the spinach factory. The scene lasts nearly five minutes. We see them start to make love and then return to it again as Lana describes it to Candace and Kate.
Brandon’s fatal mistake proves to be his attempt to pay the speeding ticket. After Lana visits him in jail, Brandon has no choice but to explain the issue of his gender. Although this scene has the potential to serve as the second turning point, Lana suffers from the same sense of denial as Brandon. Deliberately choosing to avoid the issue, she bails him out. Candace, however, has found hard evidence that Brandon is actually a woman. After Candace squeals to John at 73 minutes, it causes a chain reaction. Even so, it does not turn out to provide conclusive proof of Brandon’s gender because both Brandon and Lana attempt to continue the charade with the rest of their extended “family.” The second turning point actually occurs when John and Tom depants Brandon at 82 minutes. This provides the indisputable truth about Brandon’s gender and represents the single event that spins the story into its horrific third act, which depicts the brutal rape and eventual murder of Brandon.
Peirce and Bienen create dramatic conflict by placing their determined but vulnerable protagonist, Brandon, into an extremely combustible situation with two volatile ex-cons: John and Tom. Convinced he is actually a man, Brandon becomes intent on following his own sexual desire, whatever the personal cost. Lonny tries to warn him off, but Brandon has become too swept up in the exhilaration of his own sexual desire to listen. As Brandon watches Lana sing karaoke, he is too entranced to notice that he is not her only admirer. Danger lurks right next to him in the form of John, who shares the same fixation with Lana. Brandon’s crush on Lana draws him further into the orbit of her dysfunctional “family” and causes him to enter into an incestuous love triangle with its symbolic “father” figure, John. Once he suspects what’s going on between Lana and Brandon, John reminds Brandon, “One thing you gotta keep in mind, though, little buddy. This is my house.” Numerous times Brandon comes close to being found out. John notices his tiny hands early on and Lana’s mother “Mom” asks to get a closer look at Brandon when she first meets him. Brandon almost gets caught when the cop stops him for speeding, but the computer is down and he gets a temporary reprieve. The longer the story goes on, the more the risks increase. And once John and Tom find out the deception from Candace, the horrors escalate from depantsing, to rape, to murder.
John and Tom are not simply one-dimensional, evil antagonists. The screenwriters create believable motivations for their behavior. There are a number of scenes that indicate John’s irrational side. In the drag racing scene, John encourages Brandon to elude the cops, but he then blames Brandon afterwards for getting caught and endangering their lives. Brandon appears to be confounded by this response, but the others in the group are quite familiar with the inherent contradictions of John’s irrational behavior. Kate alludes to the fact that Brandon’s entered a “psycho ward.” Tom offers a clinical diagnosis: “The doctors say he ain’t got no impulse control.” At Lana’s house, as John sits watching TV with his daughter April, Mom tells Brandon proudly: “Of course, four years ago, you wouldn’t have thought he could take care of himself, let alone that kid. Well 4 years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to talk to him . . . Prison.” But seconds later, John explodes at April – “The little bastard pissed on me!” – leaving Candace the task of consoling the crying child.
John’s obsession with Lana is obvious when we are first introduced to her in the bar, when John screams at someone who distracts him from her performance by breaking a glass. A dreamy, mesmerized look comes over him as he watches her sing. John also carries around Lana’s letters in his wallet. At Brandon’s birthday party, John becomes extremely jealous and intrudes on her in her bedroom as she wraps Brandon’s present. He tells Lana he misses her and tries to hug her. She responds angrily, “You’re giving me the creeps. You’re like a stalker.” John maintains that he simply wants to protect her, but the “stalker” line carries a certain resonance because we do see John staring at her later through the window of the spinach factory as she works the night shift.
When John finds out that Brandon may actually be female, he storms into Lana’s room searching for proof. Mom tries to get him to stop, but John guilt-trips her by telling her, “If you were any kind of mother, you wouldn’t have let this happen.” John reacts with utter disgust after he ransacks Lana’s room and finds the sex-change pamphlet in Brandon’s duffel bag. After reading from it briefly, he screams, “Get this sick shit way from me.” Once Brandon arrives, John assumes the role of the righteous and indignant parent. He tells Brandon, “The fact is, little dude, when it comes right down to it, you’re really nothing but a goddamn liar.” When Kate suggests they should leave and let Lana and Mom deal with the matter privately, John snaps, “Don’t you dare tell me my business.” Later, after John and Tom rape Brandon, John blames the victim for his actions by saying, “You know you brought this on yourself, Teena.”
Compared to John, Tom is a less major character in the story, but Peirce and Bienen have created an interesting backstory for him as well. Tom tells the story of the family fire as the gang heads to the bumper-ski area. In Tom’s version he’s the big hero, the one who rescued everyone. He tells them proudly, “When they brought me in, they were like, ‘this is the biggest fucking fire around here in 50 years!’ You probably saw it in the Lincoln paper. That was me.” But John deflates Tom’s bubble later on by suggesting that Tom actually started the fire himself. When Brandon asks Tom whether he set the fire, Tom avoids answering the question directly, which suggests that it’s probably true and may even be the reason he spent time in prison. Tom copes with his inner demons by mutilating himself with a knife – the scars on his body serve as a testament to his own self-loathing.
Lana’s mother provides a kind of halfway house for Lana’s wayward friends, especially John and Tom, who call her “Mom” and consider themselves to be part of her extended family. But Mom, who is clearly an alcoholic, has her own personal problems. When we first encounter Mom, she’s “sprawled on the couch in a drunken haze” in the scene where Brandon escorts Lana home and the two help put her to bed. The next time we see Mom, she drinks and plays cards with John and Tom. Mom turns up the music and begins dancing to the radio, which wakes up Lana, who needs to sleep during the day because she works the night shift. Although Mom sincerely cares for her daughter, she does several things that escalate the events that lead to disaster. Mom allows John top ransack Lana’s room and find the incriminating evidence. After Lana comes out of the bedroom and announces conclusively that Brandon is a man, it is Mom who suddenly freaks out and screams at Brandon: “You son of a bitch, what’ve you done to my baby? I want the truth. What the fuck are you, you motherfucker!” As Lana attempts to deal with her mother, John and Tom depants Brandon in the bathroom. After Brandon has been raped and shows up at her house, Mom shouts: “I don’t want it in my house.” Mom also encourages John to get rid of the evidence, a sign of her misplaced loyalty to her “family.” After John breaks into her house, Mom is also the one who informs John where Brandon is staying.
John’s attempts to assume the role of the absent father in Lana’s dysfunctional family adds an incestuous dimension to his character. John insists to Lana that he only wants to protect her. He asks her, “So, what do you see in him? I mean he’s nice and everything, but he’s kind of a wus.” Lana replies, “I know he’s no big he-man like you, but there’s something about him . . .” This “something about him” includes Brandon’s ability to satisfy her sexually, which is what creates such antipathy in John because it represents not only a threat to his masculinity, but to his patriarchal position within the family.
Brandon’s attraction to Lana is both immediate and decisive. From the moment he sees her, she’s the only one for him. But Lana only warms to Brandon gradually. When he tries to walk her home, she rebuffs him, causing him to comment about her crankiness. Once they do get together, Lana remains slightly ambivalent despite the orgasmic sex. As Kimberly Peirce has pointed out in various interviews, Lana tries desperately to balance conflicting impulses. In the scene where Brandon walks her home, Lana does a double-take before entering the house, asking him his name. When they have sex the first time, Lana glimpses his cleavage, indicating she knows – at least on some level – that he’s actually a woman. She tells him, “It’s okay, Brandon. Don’t be scared.”
As the above scene indicates, Lana is not the only one who is ambivalent. Brandon, in fact, has his own fears, which causes Lana to console him. If there is any doubt regarding Brandon’s gender, Candace tells Lana the truth after she finds the evidence. When Lana visits him in jail, Brandon has been placed in the women’s cell, causing her to ask: “What’s going on Brandon?” But Brandon concocts a story about being a hermaphrodite. Lana hasn’t heard of the term, so Brandon tries to explain: “It’s a person who’s got girl and boy parts – Brandon is not quite a ‘he.’ Brandon is a she. Brandon’s real name is Teena Brandon.” But Lana cuts him off abruptly and proceeds to bail him out. Meanwhile, Candace reveals the secret about Brandon’s real gender to John and Tom, and they head over to Lana’s house to break the news to Mom. Before Lana goes home, she and Brandon make out, but when Lana tries to touch him, Brandon recoils.
Lana and Brandon make love eventually – as two women – after Brandon has been raped, a scene which J. Hoberman calls “so transcendently sentimental it should have been set in the Garden of Eden or accompanied by a celestial choir,” and which Melissa Anderson in Cineaste considers “the only false note in Boys Don’t Cry.” Afterwards, Brandon asks Lana to accompany him to Lincoln, and Lana agrees and goes home to pack her things. But when Brandon turns up with his hair no longer slicked down and looking more feminine, Lana hesitates, causing Brandon to sense “her confusion and fear.” Lana’s vacillation ends moments later when John breaks into her home, and Mom, now fearful, provides him with the information that Brandon is hiding out at Candace’s farmhouse. Lana tries to save Brandon, but she is helpless against the two ex-cons, determined to prevent their rape-victim from testifying against them. Once Brandon dies, Lana’s love remains steadfast and assumes the level of myth. It is only through death that the transcendence the two sought together will finally be reached, even if only through the device of memory. In Brandon’s note, which Lana reads – and which we hear in his own words in voiceover – as she drives through depressed farm landscape, he ends by saying: “I’ll be waiting for you. Love always and forever, Brandon.”
What raises Boys Don’t Cry above the tabloid sensationalism of its subject matter are the complex characterizations that Peirce and Bienen are able to create, not only for Brandon and Lana, but for the perpetrators of this hate crime. By carefully delineating the social forces that have shaped John and Tom’s stunted world view, it becomes possible for us to understand the threat Brandon poses to the fragile sense of their own manhood, both symbolic and real. How else to explain the fury of the violence he elicits from these two small-town losers, desperate in their intent to hold onto the only remaining power that has not been stripped from them already. But Brandon, the film’s scrappy transgender hero, refuses to allow himself to be defeated by hatemongers. “You were right about me John,” Brandon defiantly tells him at the film’s end, “I just keep getting back up.” In fact, one of the most appealing aspects of Boys Don’t Cry lies in its ability to find hope and transcendence in this otherwise grim Midwestern tragedy. As Roger Ebert writes: “This could have been a clinical Movie of the Week, but instead it’s a sad song about a free spirit who tried to fly a little too close to the flame.”