In a culture where "based on a true story" is the least questioned imprimatur of quality going, the life and murder of the charismatic, cross-dressing Nebraskan Brandon Teena is an easy sell--and that's quite a potential problem. Even a filmmaker tasteful enough not to sink into tabloid tawdriness could have easily envisioned an unwieldy postgrad thesis on the fluidity of gender or a tinny screed against the narrowmindedness of the small townie. Instead, with Boys Don't Cry, writer-director Kimberly Peirce riffs on the pervasive boredom of the rural Midwest, how it inculcates a certain kind of recklessness in both Brandon and his murderers that's both hilarious and pathetic, sensual and destructive.
Let's start with the money shot. Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank)--born Teena Brandon and blessed with a charming ability to suspend his willfully doting girlfriends' disbelief in regard to his sex organs--has successfully seduced Lana Tisdel (Chloë Sevigny). Out in the desolate Nebraskan fields, Brandon's head proceeds down Lana's bare chest, stomach, and waist, instigating a cinematically grandiose orgasm that Sevigny conveys through the most nuanced of facial trembles. Set on transcendence rather than transgression, the camera reels upward to a kaleidoscopically spinning sky, as if intent on devising some grand feminine image to counteract the age-old train-steaming-into-the-tunnel. It's tender. It's corny. It's heavy-handed. It's irresistible.
And, of course, it's probably not true. According to her testimony in last year's wooden documentary The Brandon Teena Story, the real Lana had considered breaking it off with Brandon after their first coupling because he was "too small." That's reality for you--always screwing up a good story. But Boys Don't Cry has a greater truth in mind.
As Brandon, Swank seems to have slouched off the pages of Seventeen with a copy of Tom Sawyer shoved in her hip pocket, luxuriating in the androgynous subtexts of boyish sexuality that permeate American culture from high to low. Brandon Teena is an archetypally lanky American frontier boy: restless, gawky, dreamy. Rather than staking a predatory claim, his gaze glows with a contagious delight that envelops the girls and invites them into his reality. Peirce's camerawork attempts a similar feat, caressing their bodies without exploiting them, and even endowing Brandon's foes with a kind of humanity. Eventually, however, history declares that those romantic perceptions must be crushed, as Brandon's killers offer a grisly, empirical demonstration that he is a she in order to assert their own reductive reality.
Where The Brandon Teena Story gets bogged down in the sort of "real" details that make the Brandon of Boys Don't Cry so dissatisfied and impatient, Peirce's film presents its hero as others saw him: a petty thief convicted of forgery, a shady drifter with a shifting background, and a woman who had hoodwinked a town's population into accepting her masculinity. The doc sifts relentlessly through the facts: Should such assaults be prosecuted as hate crimes? Why weren't the rapists prosecuted before they were given a chance to murder Brandon and the others? Yet it still can't discover the ineffable qualities that Boys Don't Cry allows to surface and, momentarily, to shine.
If you think God writes lousy theater now and then, wait till you see what screenwriter Pamela Gray is capable of. Based not only on the life of Roberta Guaspari but also on Small Wonders, the 1996 documentary that followed Guaspari's East Harlem children's violin program from its loss of funding through its triumphant Carnegie Hall performance with Isaac Stern and Yitzak Perlman, Music of the Heart is an indubitable Good Deed about a Good Deed.
Let me begin by saying that Small Wonders isn't exactly my cup of uplift. It seems to me that anyone who dedicates her life to enduring amassed grade schoolers sawing away at violins should be canonized or committed. But watching any adult, no matter how charismatic, hectoring her students into playing their instruments is sure to engender uncomfortable flashbacks in anyone sentenced to music lessons as a child. That said, the kids of Small Wonders are genuinely cute, Guaspari's shrill and husky showboating is entertaining, and it's all for a worthy cause.
Music of the Heart is another matter entirely. Meryl Streep does such a spot-on impression of Guaspari that you might sometimes mistake her overweening star turn for an honest depiction of a human being. But the performance sandpapers the grain of a human life into a series of cloying epiphanies and lacquers it with a sickly coat of stammering affectations. When Streep includes Guaspari's flaws, it's not to balance the picture, but to offer herself an opportunity to convince us that the teacher Feels Very Deeply About Things.
The film then makes what I had assumed was a basic human characteristic shared by all except the most nerve-deadened sociopaths seem heroic by setting a series of caricatures in orbit around the star. Gloria Estefan is the Supportive Latina Friend. Angela Bassett is the Strong Black Female Principal. Josh Pais is the sallow, tenured nebbish on hand to tell Guaspari that her program will never succeed. And we are beset by relentlessly adorable children on all sides, and there's even a puppy--a very cute puppy. Meanwhile, Guaspari Learns to Love Again. To Stand Up For Herself. To Reconcile With Her Mother. To Get Along With Others--and I do mean capital "O" Others: Harlemites of varying shades of brown on hand to provide local color, glancing at Streep with glowing, appreciative eyes. One black student's mother gripes about her son learning the music of "dead white Europeans" and accuses Guaspari of coming uptown to "save" children. Pedagogically, ideologically, and sociologically valid questions? Indeed, but not according to the logic of this film, which reels in horror from any notion that disputes its core belief: Life is about hard work as its own reward.
That's not a tenet the film lives up to, however. For a film about the craft of the violin, the music is pitifully incidental. When the plot kicks into "let's put on a show" giddiness in preparation for the Carnegie gig, the soundtrack pipes in some of Estefan's bubblegum salsa. Music has it both ways: It allows the audience to endorse the symbolic notion of "classical music" as something that's good for kids while permitting us to deal with as little of the boring stuff as possible. When it comes time for the Carnegie Hall concert, we're treated to cute shots of kids mugging over Perlman's shoulder to make the medicine go down smoother.
One of the alternative school administrators interviewed in Small Wonders protests that "Art is not an instrument to teach something else." But in Music of the Heart, the arts are nothing more than a means to an end--to teach the kids discipline, to salvage Guaspari's psyche, to manipulate the sentiments of paying customers who are desperate for any hallmark of human goodness. If you genuinely support the practice of teaching the violin to inner-city kids, rather than the ennobling idea of it, I'm sure there are many worthy nonprofits who'd accept a tax-deductible gift. Or you could always get involved with your local school board.
Boys Don't Cry is playing at the Uptown Theatre and starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema; Music of the Heart starts Friday at area theaters.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.