When the words "based on a true story" and "tragic events" appear together in connection with a film, alarm bells usually start ringing. Yet Kimberly Peirce's critic-wowing debut, which has already gathered a pile of international critics' awards (not to mention two Oscar nominations at time of writing) is hardly what you'd call a TV movie-quality melodrama.
Astutely mixing facts and fiction, Peirce never lets Boys Don't Cry descend into lurid sensationalism. Instead she proves alert to the mythical aspects of the story: the process of change is, after all, at the heart of so many fairytales. And while exposing the murderous prejudices lingering within the American heartlands, the drama also focuses upon the tender love affair between Brandon (Swank) and Lana (Sevigny), two of society's misfits.
There's a relentless, deliberately claustrophobic approach to the story-telling here. Pierce doesn't waste time with flashbacks to Brandon/Teena as a child to "explain" her subject's behaviour; it's simply a given that he/she is sexually attracted to women. And, as events unfold, the sense of tension and foreboding becomes almost unbearable.
The film's visual style is also worthy of praise, with an almost hallucinatory quality to much of the imagery. There's something ominous about the desolate night-time landscapes and dustless highways, while other stylised shots, such as Lana's ghostly face appearing at a factory window, linger in the mind.
Most importantly, the young cast's performances are exceptional. The Oscar-nominated Swank (whose past credits include Beverly Hills 90210, the film version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and, oddly, The Next Karate Kid) is remarkable: not only does she entirely convince as a young man,she also conveys the joyfulness her character feels towards her new identity. Sevigny too is credible as the alluring and devoted lover of Brandon, and the scenes between the couple carry a delicate poignancy. Finally, Sarsgaard is truly chilling as a redneck "without impulse control" who responds to the revelation of Brandon's true nature with fearful vengeance.
Warranting its advance publicity, Boys Don't Cry tells its story of transgression, love and death with clarity. Strikingly shot and tautly structured, it boasts an impressive performance from Swank and heralds a major new talent in writer-director Peirce.