Good-looking stranger moves to a small town, changing lives while harboring a secret past. Mumford and Boys Don’t Cry— two hits at the recent Toronto Film Festival— are tales from the heartland, accounts of second chances taken and personal reinventions tried. Though equally all-American, they might be set on different planets. One is an amiable, Capra-esque fairy tale, the other a violent nightmare of tabloid truth.
Boys Don’t Cry, which premieres this weekend at the New York Film Festival before opening next Friday, recounts the lurid, shocking fate of 21-year-old drag king Brandon Teena— a narrative that, since it was first reported in the Voice five years ago, has served as the basis for numerous daytime TV shows, a 19-page New Yorker piece, and videomaker Shu Lea Cheang’s interactive artwork, as well as a documentary shown at Film Forum last fall.
As directed by Kimberly Peirce, who cowrote the impressively lean script with fellow Columbia alum Andy Bienen, the Brandon Teena story has the awe-inspiring horror of Greek tragedy and the flaming trajectory of a Roman candle. The movie is both thoughtful and visceral. Teena Brandon of Lincoln, Nebraska, changes her gender and moves to nearby Falls City. Successfully romancing several girls until found out, s/he is brutally raped and consequently executed, along with two others, by a pair of local thugs, Thomas Nissen and John Lotter.
Peirce sets this taboo-breaking, gender-confounding tale in a near-magical realm of rich, saturated colors and velvet honky-tonk nights. Drifting around, Brandon (Hilary Swank) connects with a clan of dissolute bad-boys and their dissatisfied girlfriends, some with babies and most working the late shift. A happy, polite, androgynous little bantam who pals with the guys, appreciates the girls, and is inexplicably drawn to their kids, Brandon is living in low-rent wonderland. The film is almost entirely nocturnal and, thanks to Jim Denault’s exemplary cinematography, unfolds in a shadowy, glamorous void of disappearing roads and illuminated refineries.
The world is presented through Brandon’s reborn eyes. Viewed with a mixture of desire and empathy, the girls are lush, soft, and delightfully clueless. Brandon is smitten by the gangly, diffident Lana (Chloë Sevigny), whom he recognizes and successfully pursues as a potential partner in fantasy— her ambition is to become a professional karaoke singer. The guys, John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III), are scarcely less fascinating but far more dangerous. These are the irrational others whose horsing around and violent, self-mutilating ways Brandon must learn to keep from being branded a hopeless pussy. Mimicking the mimicry of manhood, Swank gives a fascinating double performance— although Boys Don’t Cry is rich with skillful characterizations (Alicia Goranson as Lana’s sweetly bovine friend, Jeannetta Arnette as her defeated, alcoholic mother).
From Lana’s perspective, the hot but
solicitous Brandon is a new sort of man. Boys Don’t Cry strongly (and reasonably) suggests that, on some barely unconscious level, Lana knows that her dream lover is female and doesn’t care. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Brandon has had
to solve many technical problems— tampon consumption not the least— but there’s an undeniable grandeur to Lana’s absolute denial. The reality principle finally intrudes when Brandon is busted as a result of an old speeding ticket. The scene in which Lana bails him out of jail— ignoring his feeble explanation for having been locked up in the women’s cell— is one of the movie’s few daytime occurrences.
For Lana, the true Brandon lives by night. He has not only reconfigured gender but reinvented the sex act just for them. The night the couple subsequently spend together in a turquoise sedan is shot as science fiction— the parked pleasure dome lit from within, as though temporarily sheltering E.T. In this sense, Boys Don’t Cry is far more convulsively romantic than David Cronenberg’s dour adaptation of the similarly gender-bent M. Butterfly. Even when Brandon is visibly exposed, Lana fights to preserve the enchantment, screaming for John and Tom to “leave him alone.”
Coproduced by the tireless Christine Vachon, Boys Don’t Cry has a family resemblance to I Shot Andy Warhol, which she produced in 1996. Like the Warhol film, Boys Don’t Cry is a polished first feature, ripped from the headlines and constructed around a stellar stunt performance. More crucially, both movies are intelligently glamorous evocations of sexual insurrection. But where Valerie Solanas the antiheroine of I Shot Andy Warhol was her own ideologue, the surreal being at the heart of Boys Don’t Cry left no text beyond a dreadful martyrdom. Hence, the temptation to temper the tragedy with tendentiousness.
The scene in which totally accepting Lana and finally exposed Brandon make love as themselves is so transcendently sentimental it should have been set in the Garden of Eden or accompanied by a celestial choir. Still, the writing on the whole is so adroit, the performances so nuanced, and the material so compelling one barely notices this nod toward sexual correctness. Boys Don’t Cry scorches the screen like a prairie fire, as “Brandon” is consumed by desire and consigned to oblivion.
Mumford opens promisingly in black and white, with a burst of jazzy music and a faux-noir voice-over. A hunky young drifter arrives in a “two-bit town,” rents a room from a hot and bothered landlady, and . . . cut. It’s the fantasy of a balding, overweight, sweat-soaked pharmacist free-associating on his psychotherapist’s couch. Thus inoculated, we can now proceed to the main fantasy.
Written and directed by the generally soulless veteran genre-mechanic Lawrence Kasdan, Mumford is less a midnight fireworks display than a pallid ray of sunshine. Young “Doc” Mumford (Loren Dean) is the most popular shrink in the picture-postcard town of Mumford (don’t ask, I won’t tell), in the Pacific Northwest. Given that Mumford is a place where everyone knows your name, Doc’s methods are a bit unorthodox— perhaps even post-Lacanian. He terminates sessions early and summarily rejects a sleazy lawyer (well-oiled Martin Short) as a patient. He makes house calls and tells tales out of school particularly once he’s hired to befriend the local cybermogul Skip (boyish Jason Lee).
Dean has a bluff, pushed-in face and a mildly hard-nosed style. The joke of his analytic personality almost works. Mumford is not quite Northern Exposure, but it’s basically a sitcom way of knowledge. The near-total absence of narrative tension suggests that Doc Mumford might be engaged in some sort of scam. But then isn’t psychoanalysis itself a kind of confidence game? In any case, Mumford has already established himself as the town’s guardian angel and most accomplished matchmaker— even before he develops a positive chemistry with a young divorcee, Sophie (Hope Davis), suffering a mysterious form of yuppie flu.
Spontaneously applauded by the press in Toronto, Mumford is good for a few chuckles and not nearly as egregious or cloying as it might have been. Like last year’s Pleasantville, it’s a pro-Hollywood allegory. A charismatically self-confident fake who is everything to everyone, Doc is the idealized embodiment of popular entertainment. He can cure one patient of her addiction to trashy magazines, while treating another through an infusion of other trashy magazines. (Given his underlying “don’t dream, be it” ideology, it would be interesting to see how the good doctor would have counseled Teena Brandon.)
Entertainment gives and entertainment takes away. Appropriately, Mumford’s secret identity is exposed by a real television show,
Unsolved Mysteries. The movie’s most magical shot has the shrink walking out into the small-town night and sensing the tele-glow of simultaneous awareness all around him. There’s no unconscious in this town, just a wonderful collective illusion. This movie might have been made to illustrate the Frankfurt School koan that mass culture is psychoanalysis in reverse.