Boys Don’t Cry is a picture about an unfortunate Lincoln, Nebraska woman (Hillary Swank) with gender identity issues. She wants to be a boy, so she crops her hair short and poses as a boy. In those moments, where she has “passed” and tasted affection from the vantage point of a male, the film works. We see the fearful life Swank leads, how her surroundings and her gender conspire against her desire to express what she feels and who she thinks she is. Swank has you share her exhiliration as she ends an evening with a kiss from a unknowing date. Her performance is justly praised.
Swank soon falls in with a motley crew of losers, including an ex-con, a self-mutilator who has burned his own family out of house and home, and a girl who aspires to leave her job canning broccoli so she can get paid as a karaoke singer (Chloe Sevigny). Swank falls in love with Sevigny, and a white trash Romeo and Juliet ensues.
Director Kimberly Peirce has a firm grip on the picture when she is depicting Swank’s acceptance into this group. It plays as a more rough-hewn American Graffiti where the gang eschews the strip for the highways of Nebraska, and malts become beers and bong hits. Peirce shows a group moving fast (she uses the effect of fast speed highway lights, super slow-motion shots of the gang getting high in the back of a car, and a police chase off-road in the dust) and going nowhere.
Unfortunately, in real life, the Swank character was murdered, and the second half of the film grounds to the halt of numbing, repeated brutalization of Swank. Director Peirce pours it on at the end, with 4 scenes of debasement and cruelty. Swank is so dehumanized that any emotional power is drained from the film. I suppose the end is defensible on grounds of reality, but it saps the early beauty of the film and worse, it blots out Swank’s singular character until she is just another unrecognizable victim of senseless American violence.