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Friday, June 30, 2000


Great pretender in the heartland

Many people who should know better have been swooning over Julia Roberts' performance in "Erin Brockovich," but whether you buy her tough-talking, drop-dead gorgeous working mom, or -- like yours truly -- dismiss it as phony and glib, one thing is certain: Never, not for a moment, do we get past the fact that we are watching Julia Roberts playing Erin Brockovich. Julia never lets herself, or her desire to project a flattering image, disappear long enough for the character to emerge.

Hold this up against Hilary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry," who took home an Oscar for her astounding portrayal of Brandon Teena, a real-life petty thief and small-town Casanova who got herself killed for trying to pass herself off as a man. Swank erases herself entirely, and pulls off one of the most transfixing onscreen metamorphoses since De Niro in "Raging Bull."

Admittedly, Swank is a newcomer with a still malleable image (who remembers "The Next Karate Kid?"), but this is still a very challenging role: Swank is not just taking on the mannerisms of a man, she has to play a woman disguising herself as a man, with the ever-present fear of discovery that underlines this act.

Furthermore, the real-life Teena was a character who defied any easy understanding. Emerging from the Qwik-Stop and trailer-park wasteland of Lincoln, Neb., Teena Brandon sheared her hair, bound her breasts, donned a cowboy hat, put a sock in her jeans and became Brandon Teena, picking up big-haired girls in roller rinks. This might have been less remarkable in San Francisco or New York, but in the heart of beer-swilling, cowboy macho-land, where "faggot" is the insult of choice, this was almost suicidal behavior.

Further complicating things was the fact that Teena didn't consider herself a dyke, in fact, she didn't know what she was -- she just knew what she liked, and that was girls. Her appetite for seduction -- picking up the girlfriends of the rough crowd of ex-cons she hung with -- and her chronic kleptomania (petty theft, joyriding and using her friend's credit cards) were the seeds of her own destruction.

So, Swank's task was to play a confused trans-gender "freak," a chronic liar and cheat, who took advantage of the people closest to her. And, she had to capture the irresistible charisma that allowed Brandon to get away with such stunts, while also letting the underlying desperation and no-tomorrow sense of irresponsibility seep through as well.

That Swank ends up so fully with our sympathies is a testament to her skills. Under the guidance of director Kimberley Peirce, Swank found the key to connecting audiences with Brandon: her desire to risk it all and live out her dreams, and damn the consequences. As such, she's the latest in a long line of cinema's beautiful losers, characters like Bonnie and Clyde, or "Midnight Cowboy's" wanna-be gigolo Joe Buck.

Take the scene where Brandon's grooming herself in the mirror before a big date, liking what she sees; she pauses for a moment, and then lets rip with a big grin, telling herself "I'm an asshole." Swank hits the line with a perfect inflection that contains as much self-realization as devil-may-care glee.

Every other performance in the film has as much to offer. While Julia Roberts looks like she learned about the lower class by watching "Roseanne," Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard and Brendon Sexton -- who play Brandon's dodgy buddies in Falls City -- look authentically grungy enough that you could pass them sniffing glue in a parking lot and not even turn your head. "Boys Don't Cry" may be another chapter in the canon of new queer cinema (note the presence of producer Christine Vachon), but its horizons are a lot wider than that, capturing the wasted youth of heartland America better than any flick since "River's Edge."

Sarsgaard is astonishing as Brandon's newly found friend John, alternately charismatic and menacing. John comes from a broken home, with no future and a criminal record, but he's not a terrible guy. However, the blow to his ego when he finds out his beloved Lana (Sevigny) has been seduced by a girl sends him over the line. Sevigny is also a revelation. Wasted on drugs for half the film, she leaves us thinking that Lana is being duped by Brandon, only to show -- at the crucial point -- that she knows what she wants, and is deliberately willing to ignore what she doesn't want to see.

Give director Peirce credit for seeking to explore, not exploit, this situation. Rather than evil homophobes and P.C. lesbians, she gives us people wading through messy emotions and situations they barely have the vocabulary to articulate. Their reactions are spontaneous and tragic and entirely believable.

Peirce brackets the film with interludes of impressionistic time-lapse shots of traffic flowing down the dusty highways, and stars moving far over the power lines. This dreamy edge draws our attention to the film's final point: In this America, where all children are taught to follow their dreams, that they can be anything if they set their mind to it, they still do so at their own risk.

"Boys Don't Cry" opens July 8 at Cinema Rise, Shibuya.

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