Small-Town Hate On Screen

This week, CBS News Sunday Morning Critic John Leonard reviews Boys Don't Cry, from Fox Searchlight Pictures, and the documentary The Brandon Teena Story, from Zeitgeist Films.


Boys Don't Cry is certainly the best film I've seen this year, and I didn't even want to see it. I already knew the depressing story from the tabloid news in 1993 and a documentary on Showtime cable last July.

Briefly, Teena Brandon was born female in Lincoln, Neb., in 1972, but chose to grow up as a boy, Brandon Teena, cross-dressing, dating girls, even proposing marriage.

When rumors of the secret began to circulate, Brandon left Lincoln for small-town Falls City, hooked up with ex-cons John Lotter and Tom Nissen, fell in love with Lana Tisdel, and got arrested for forging checks.

After that, an outraged Lotter and Nissen beat up and raped their former friend, who reported them to the cops, who did nothing until manly Lotter and manly Nissen murdered womanly Brandon, as well as a single mother who had given sanctuary and a luckless stranger who just happened to be visiting the farmhouse that New Year's Eve.

John Leonard
In the remarkable Showtime cable documentary The Brandon Teena Story, Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir talked on camera to Tisdel and other former girlfriends; to Lotter and Nissen, in prison; to mothers and fathers; to cops, including one law enforcement official who suggested maybe Lotter and Nissen had been sexually assaulted in prison.

Inventing New Ways To Hurtcolor>

There were many heartbreaking photos of Teena as Brandon. We listened to audiotapes of police interrogations, and country music about love gone wrong. And we swam in a visual stream of gray, polluted consciousness: images of big sky, lonely windmills, bereft highways, sinister cornstalks, wasted barns and punk bafflement.

From The Brandon Teena Story, available on home video next February, it was clear that Tisdel still cared for Brandon, that Lotter was as confused about his behavior as Teena had been about her sexuality, that cross-dressing is dangerous in small towns with depressed economies, and that we find new ways to hurt each other every hateful day of the week.

Boys Don't Cry, an amazing first feature film from director Kimberly Peirce, turns this grim Truman Capote compost into something lyrical. Under the weight of a huge sky - forced intimacy and surprising exaltation.

To those highways and cornstalks, Peirce adds racing clouds and streams of neon, booze and drugs - a trailer camp, a blacking factory, a kraoke bar - a makeshift community, crushing solitude and desperate longing.

Reviews by CBS News Sunday Morning Critic John Leonard
Hilary Swank, heretofore known to me only from Beverly Hills 90210, is a reckless wonder as androgynous Teena, willing herself to boyhood, and so somehow in between that, the ambivalence itself is what seems to attract young women like Lana Tisdel.

As Tisdel, slow, dreamy, and independent-minded, Chole Sevigny trumps her own fine performance in The Last Days of Disco. As John Lotter, the patriarchal psychopath, Peter Sarsgaard is all cheap nostalgia, blank uneasiness and sudden violence. When that violence overwhelms the movie, it's all the more shocking because it's intimate. It's personal. We are implicated and complicit.

Gender Performance In Focuscolor>

But Boys Don't Cry is at least as much about love as it is about rape and murder - or, in the jargon of our time, gender performance. Swank and Sevigny persuade us that it's possible to choose, that we are to some saving degree free to define the terms of our passionate commitment, to invent our own identities, to insist on what we feel.

For which, of course, we will be punished. Nebraska and Teena Brandon were just warming up for Wyoming and Matthew Shepherd.

Written by John Leonard
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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