There's a steadily mounting sense of anxious dread that informs "Boys Don't Cry," the deeply disturbing but riveting first feature from former journalist and photographer Kimberly Peirce.
The film tells the true story of Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank), a Nebraska boy with a carefully contained secret, who waits too late to wake up and escape from his oppressive nightmare in a small town where an unusual lifestyle choice leads to consequences far worse than mere ostracization. By the time daylight comes, a brutal rape has been committed and bloodied corpses line the floor of a run-down house in an isolated burg 75 miles outside of Lincoln, Neb.
The boy, you see, is really a girl. At least, that's what's indicated -- Teena Brandon -- on the birth certificate. Peirce's film, based on the widely publicized coverage, offers a chilling, ultimately sympathetic portrait of a damaged outsider so exhilarated by the possibility of a real human connection that she's willing to risk everything.
But first, it's all reckless joy, as Brandon, on the lam from forgery and auto-theft charges, celebrates life among the alcohol-soaked numbskulls and a few likable folks in tiny Falls City. (The real locale wasn't hospitable to the production, so Peirce borrowed the Dallas area as a stand-in.)
Pool games, karaoke singing and heavy drinking at the local bar, as well as hanging out at the local convenience store and playing endless rounds of tailgate surfing (grabbing a rope extended from a pickup truck's cab to its rear and holding on for dear life) constitute good times in the dead-end community. And you thought cow tipping was a lonely cornhusker's only sport.
Swank, a former child actress seen in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and on television's "Beverly Hills, 90210," gives the most entrancing performances as the open-faced, sweet, likable kid who buddies up with a pair of ex-cons and wins the charms of sullen-but-needy Lana (the excellent Chloë Sevigny of "The Last Days of Disco" and "Kids"), a bored teen-ager stuck in a monotonous job at a spinach-packing factory.
Brandon's convincing masquerade, a remarkable achievement by Swank, is accomplished with the help of male mannerisms, a boyish haircut, a tightly wrapped chest and a carefully placed tube sock. Suffice to say that the young couple's romance gets typically serious without that secret being revealed.
It's fascinating, and maybe just a bit voyeuristic, looking for signs of Brandon's biological identity, as the confused 21-year-old proceeds to win the affections of Lana, Candace (Alicia Goranson) and practically all the other townies, including Lana's alcoholic wreck of a mom (Jeanetta Arnette).
John (Peter Sarsgaard), Lana's thuggish ex-boyfriend, and his old jailbird pal, Tom (Brendan Sexton III), at first as taken with Brandon's convivial friendliness as everyone else, soon grow suspicious of the lanky outsider who seems to be moving in on their turf.
Their sense of betrayal finally boils over into rage. This is where Peirce's direction shines as she relays all of this difficult material with real, humane empathy for the victims, as well as sympathy for their hate-filled murderers. And she manages to hint at sensationalism only on occasion.