Film Diary: Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 2000)

Monday, 9 June 2008

Boys Don't Cry

There’s an old canard that circulates from time to time in the film world which says that good books make bad films. There’s some truth in this of course – the best books have a depth of texture that is hard for film to handle in a manageable way. What, then, can be done in a film drawn from a real-life story?

On one level, not a great deal. Real lives, even the most dramatic ones, lack the intensity of vision that film requires. Even the short and tragic life of Teena Brandon, the Nebraska teenaged girl who just knew she was really the boy Brandon Teena, struggles to cut the mustard. It’s hard to sympathise to Brandon, a tearaway and petty crook with a self-destructive streak, and although what happened to her was an outrage that nobody deserves, if carelessly handled on the screen it could easily fall flat.

And yet. And yet, this film almost comes off. That has a lot to do with a quite astonishing performance by Hilary Swank, who looks terrific as a boy. I don’t know very much about the real Brandon Teena, and that’s one of the problems with this kind of film treatment, but Swank makes him into a charming and likeable young man who treats those close to him with great courtesy. So it’s all the more appalling when (this is no great secret so no spoiler) he is raped, beaten and shot by the men she called her friends after they found out Brandon was in fact Teena. It’s also abundantly clear that Kimberly Peirce, co-writer and director, invested a great deal in this project. I hadn’t realised that five years before this film, she’s already realised the same story as a short film. Her care and outrage for Brandon Teena shine through the whole project.

It’s not a great film, but it is an important document of the end of a life that ought to be remembered.

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One Response to “Film Diary: Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 2000)”


  1. Bizarrely, my male hairdresser looks EXACTLY like Hilary Swank in that photo. It’s really eerie!


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