Co-written and directed by Kimberly Peirce

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As the 20th century grinds remorselessly to a close, Princess Diana, Monica Lewinsky and JonBenét Ramsey continue to be held up by the media as signal figures of our time. Yet something tells me that when future historians look back on this period, the bulimic socialite, the kneepad-ready intern and the 6-year-old "beauty queen" will barely rate a passing nod. Rather, a 21-year-old woman named Teena Brandon -- who saw herself as a man named Brandon Teena -- seems certain to be looked on as emblematic. And in Boys Don't Cry, director Kimberly Peirce and a truly remarkable young actress named Hilary Swank show us exactly why, on New Year's Eve in 1993, three people were murdered in a farmhouse in Fall City, Neb. The reason was that one of them had been trying (with considerable success) to pass herself off as a man. And the discovery of the fact that she was, in fact, a woman was something the two young men she had once counted as friends could not abide.

Last year, The Brandon Teena Story, a first-rate documentary about the case by Susan Muska and Gréta Olafsd óttir, was released and has been making the rounds of art houses and cable-television broadcasts ever since. In fact, so striking is this work that I seriously doubted that a fictional docudrama could have anything more to say about the incident. But as Boys Don't Cry proves, there's a lot to say -- not only about Brandon Teena but also about the world in which she/he lived and died.

It's not that transgenderism is a new phenomenon; consider the sensation Christine Jorgensen created in the 1950s. In recent years, though, it has been getting renewed attention as transsexuals speak up for themselves as never before and as they are embraced as an adjunct of the gay-rights movement. But as Brandon Teena's brief life shows, we've all got a lot to learn about the way life is lived in America -- not only among the transgendered but among all sorts of other people in what the media persist in referring to so sanctimoniously as "the heartland."

Boys Don't Cry gets its tone down from moment one, as a sympathetic gay friend (Matt McGrath) cuts Teena's hair in preparation for a night at the roller rink. He asks why she doesn't consider herself a lesbian and how she expects to get away with this masquerade. He doesn't get an answer to either question, but we do, in Swank's face. She's brimming with bravado and high spirits. There's something infectiously goofy about the whole thing -- a teenage prank on the grandest scale possible. But it's a telling prank, too. Although Teena can't quite put into words why she sees herself as a man rather than a woman, Swank's physical expressiveness underscores the seriousness behind the masquerade.

Forced to leave town by a group of men who discover her secret, Teena takes to living nearby. Not much of a stretch, as Peirce unfurls the Midwest as a landscape of indistinguishable houses, gas stations and liquor stores. Made over as a man, Brandon quickly cozies up to John Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard), a brooding but seemingly low-key ex-con, and his slightly less alert buddy, Tom Nissen (Brendan Sexton III). They take on Brandon as a kind of mascot -- feisty but small (there's an amazing scene in which Brandon gets into a bar brawl with a man three times his size) and in need of brotherly protection.

Here romance enters the picture, when Brandon catches sight of Lana (Chloë Sevig-ny), a sad-eyed teenager with the aura of a lost and frequently kicked dog who desperately needs love but just might bite anyone who offers it. Lana is nominally John's girl. But he's not at all upset when the "little guy" is smitten. And for her part, Lana -- whose social life consists of hanging around a highway quick-shop -- is dazzled by this oddly delicate youth who doesn't want to brutalize or dominate her.

At one point, Brandon drops by the spinach-canning factory where Lana works the night shift. The camera shows her leaning out the window smoking a cigarette as Brandon looks up at her adoringly from the alley below and takes a Polaroid snapshot. It's as dreamily beautiful as the Elizabeth Taylor/Montgomery Clift love scenes in A Place in the Sun, yet it's unfolding on a landscape that smacks of science fiction. Moreover, if you know what's coming, this tender scene is utterly heartbreaking. Fortunately, Peirce directs the finale with an offhand grace that cushions the blow somewhat. Yet there's a further sting to it as the director makes painfully clear that the psychopaths who murdered Brandon are seen by this culture as perfectly normal.

Although most of the time Peirce directs in the straight-ahead style of middle-period Fassbinder (Jail Bait and I Only Want You to Love Me in particular), she occasionally composes the action in a painterly way -- as if this were all taking place on another planet, which in a way it is. But thanks to Peirce's sure touch and the performances of Swank, Sevigny and Sarsgaard, Boys Don't Cry is a film that's all too bound to this sad earth.

Opens Nov. 19 at the Tivoli.

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