I actually love how much these movies have in common. They're both about young people whose greatest struggle in life is the fact that they were born female... In Boys Don't Cry, a young trans man from rural Nebraska desperately tries to form his own "found" family and find acceptance; in Whale Rider a young Maori girl suffers the brunt of her grandfather's disappointment that she was born instead of the prophesied savior of their people.
Boys Don't Cry (1999)
Directed by: Kimberly Peirce
Written by: Kimberly Peirce, Andy Bienen
Starring: Hilary Swank, Chloë Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard
IMDB Synopsis: A young man named Brandon Teena navigates love, life, and being transgender in rural Nebraska.
I had to keep reminding myself in Boys Don't Cry that it was made in 1999 (and conceptualized even earlier), so people were NOT ready for an open conversation about the brutal discrimination and violence that transgender folks live with on a daily basis. I watched this film in high school - I rented it from the used book & video store I worked at when I was 15 and watched it when my parents were out of town - and I remember watching it through my fingers. It was so brutal and so harrowing and I knew next to NOTHING about trans folks. Looking back on it now, I had major gender dysphoria and queer shame (vocabulary that I did not have access to when I was a teen), and Brandon Teena's story felt like the inevitable end of the road for confused freaks like me. I know now that I am not trans (I think I fall somewhere more on the genderqueer/non-binary scale), but watching a story like this was groundbreaking for me.
However, there are parts of it that feel like a formulaic 90's drama - falling in love while doing karaoke, LOTS of moody driving scenes, weird intercuts to sped up b-roll footage of the road zooming by. I realize that Peirce was probably utilizing a lot of these more familiar visual tropes to make the story more accessible to a wider audience, since the subject matter was so likely to be off-putting to most. Which is a bummer, because I would've loved to see more weird, arthouse-y flashbacks to what Brandon was like as a teenager, or some insightful drunken monologues from the otherwise pretty generic homophobic bad guys who end up murdering him. Sadly I just don't think 1999 was ready for that - or ready to see how much of themselves were reflected in the villains.
Also I just have to add: it is still REMARKABLE to me how Brandon was able to woo the people in Falls City (particularly Lana and her mother) by doing little else other than literally just being a NICE FUCKING GUY. That was legitimately such a rare and mind blowing concept to them. I mean, Chloe Sevigny literally falls in love with him after like 2 dates because he respects her body, is NICE to her, and GOES DOWN ON HER. THAT'S IT. THAT'S ALL IT TOOK. Realistically, that was probably the BEST SEX Lana had ever had in her life. THINK ABOUT THAT.
Whale Rider (2002)
Directed by: Niki Caro
Written by: Niki Caro, Witi Ihimaera (book)
Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis
IMDB Synopsis: A contemporary story of love, rejection and triumph as a young Maori girl fights to fulfill a destiny her grandfather refuses to recognize.
This is another movie I hadn't seen since high school, and GODDAMN I FORGOT HOW INTRINSIC IT WAS TO MY ENTIRE UPBRINGING.
Without spoiling too much of my memoir... I was raised by Evangelical Christian missionary parents who moved us to the Big Island of Hawaii when I was 12 years old to work for the YWAM Kona Base (Youth With A Mission; the world's largest "non-denominational" Christian missions organization). It was somewhere between a cult and a community college, with global field trips included. While my father was by no means as gnarly as Keisha Castle-Hughes grandfather in the film, I remember deeply resonating with her struggle to be taken seriously as a woman in her spiritual community, and the re-watch was no different.
In a few articles I read, Caro was insistent that this was a story about smashing the patriarchy, not about interfering with traditional Maori culture, which I think is crucial to appreciating it. The Maoris are exceptionally matriarchal, but it would appear that the spread of toxic masculinity has no limits.
It was also interesting to watch two films where the lead actresses were both nominated for Academy Awards, especially since it feels like all the other films I've watched so far haven't been very actor-focused. As a failed actress, I appreciate watching films like this immensely (although it is always a bit of a bummer when the performances outweigh the overall greatness of the film).
And the winner is...
If this was a competition of Hilary Swank vs. Keisha Castle-Hughes, Boys Don't Cry would've won. But it ain't. This is Matriach Madness...