Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Boys Don’t Cry

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Boys Don’t Cry

8/10

USA 1999, dir. Kimberley Peirce, stars Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard

Every now and again a movie comes along that renders the job of the film critic impossible and redundant – partly because there is nothing you can criticise about them, and partly because they are so powerful and serious that any attempt to translate their effect into words seems trivial and redundant. Boys Don’t Cry is one of these movies, and this is my second attempt at writing about it. Here are a few phrases from the first draft – “a stunningly powerful experience… the director seldom puts a foot wrong… extremely well-chosen cast… a labour of love for all concerned… the Oscar, for once, went to the right candidate… builds to a shattering climax… as with all the best tragedies, there’s comedy and dumbness, and, finally, a hope of grace.” I started again not because those words weren’t accurate, but because felt so grossly inadequate.

But, for those who don’t know the plot, here’s a basic synopsis: Nebraska, 1993. A young girl-woman named Teena Brandon, in and out of trouble with the law, gets her hair cut short, wears masculine clothing and passes herself off as a boy as a prelude to future gender realignment surgery. Travelling from her native Lincoln to small-town Falls City, she calls herself Brandon Teena and convinces the locals that she is a boy, even going so far as to start a full-blown “heterosexual” relationship with Lana (Sevigny), which arouses the jealousies of Lana’s volatile ex-boyfriend John (Sarsgaard).

Working with meticulous fidelity to the actual events of the (ultimately tragic) story, first-time director Peirce strikes exactly the right balance between gritty realism and momentary transcendence, such as the periodic use of stop-motion camerawork, and the repeated image of car headlights flaring into indistinctness as they speed along dusty tracks at night. Peirce’s approach is perfect for the material, and this is one of the very few films I can think of – The Third Man is one example, another, closer in tone to this movie, is Badlands – where I can’t see any room for improvement. I wouldn’t want to change a frame.

So, if Boys Don’t Cry is so terrific – and it is – you may wondering why I’ve only given it four stars instead of five, and rated it “only” 116 – which ranks it behind The Insider, Fight Club, Magnolia, Being John Malkovich among the releases of the last 12 months. Unlike them, Boys Don’t Cry doesn’t really need to be a film It’s extremely well-crafted, and made with passion and commitment and honesty, but it’s also pretty old-fashioned in a lot of ways – it could have been made at any point over the past 40 years, and that’s a comment which can’t be made about any of that quartet. It’s a work of craft and talent, not genius. Nevertheless, Boys Don’t Cry packs more of an emotional punch than any of those movies – in fact, I’m struggling to remember the last time I felt so emotionally engaged, so shattered, at the end of a movie.

Credit for this must be shared between director Peirce, her co-scriptwriter Andy Bienen, and the cast. Plenty has been written about Hilary Swank, and I can’t disagree with any of it, or add anything that hasn’t been said (except to mention how much her smile reminded me of Matt Damon’s from time to time). But for me the real star of the show is Chloe Sevigny. Sevigny (Gummo, The Last Days Of Disco, Kids, Trees Lounge) is one of those rare performers who is pretty much the same in all of her films, and it couldn’t matter less. Although Brandon is in every scene, Boys Don’t Cry is really Lana’s story – she’s the one who goes on the biggest, scariest journey, and Sevigny is heartbreakingly convincing every step of the way. While the Academy is to be commended for picking Swank, they all deserve horsewhipping if they reckon Girl Interrupted‘s krazy kuckoo Angelina Jolie gives a better performance than Sevigny in this film.

Damn – I’ve done it again. Words and more words. I’ll restrict myself to five more short ones : go – and – see – this – picture.

by Neil Young