Maybe you saw Boys Don’t Cry. Now learn the real story of the trans man who was subjected to horrific injustice.
Dir. Susan Muska & Gréta Olafsdóttr, 1998, 90 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
You might know about Brandon Teena from Boys Don’t Cry, for which Hilary Swank, playing him, won an Oscar. That film was heavily inspired by this one. Now, generally, when it comes to accounts of true stories versus their fictionalizations, I’m firmly on the side of the docs. But in this case? I think that the Oscar bait trumps the true account. This is unfamiliar territory, strange and scary for me.
Now, I’m not saying that The Brandon Teena Story is a bad film. Far from it. The facts of the Brandon Teena case are compelling and upsetting enough on their own to sustain it. Brandon Teena was born Teena Brandon in Nebraska, but identified as a male from an early age. He would hide his female body, date girls, and hang out as just one of the guys. Troubled throughout his life, he moved to a new town in 1993 in pursuit of a clean slate. However, when two of his friends discovered that he was anatomically female, they raped him, and later murdered him after his attempts to engage the authorities failed. It’s a sickening, sad story, one that helped spur legislation concerning sex and gender-related hate crimes in the 1990’s.
This is a perfect subject for a doc. The problem is that, in going for a tone that could properly convey the tragedy of the situation, directors Susan Muska and Gréta Olafsdóttr inadvertently neuter it’s emotional impact. The movie is extremely matter-of-fact, using sparse musical cues and few dramatic flourishes. It tells its story entirely through the accounts of those who knew Brandon Teena, as well as those involved in prosecuting her case. It’s weird, because it feels like this movie should work, but it just didn’t click fully with me. Perhaps it actually trusts the facts too much, and neglects to truly involve the audience along the way.
The Brandon Teena Story is competent. It’s an informative look at a landmark incident in the history of transgender rights in our country. But it couldn’t make me feel anything, and that’s what I look for in a movie.