Full marks for a brilliant impersonation of a girl living out her fantasy as a boy

Boys Don't Cry (18) | Kimberley Peirce | 118 mins | Trailer Erin Brockovich (15) | Steven Soderbergh | 133 mins | Trailer

The true story of Teena Brandon or Brandon Teena is both beautiful and horrible - and, like all beautiful, horrible true stories, it haunts. It haunts us the way photographs of people who are about to die haunt us. It haunted Kimberley Peirce, the director of Boys Don't Cry, when she originally read the story - of a sexually troubled young woman who successfully passed herself off as a boy in a white-trash Nebraskan community - in the Village Voice several years ago. And the supreme virtue of her movie, which has more virtues than it has flaws, is that it, too, haunts. If it didn't, it would be worthless.

The first time we see Teena, she has had her hair boyishly cropped and is stuffing a rolled-up sock down her jeans. From the onset, then, we know what she is, even if we don't know (and never do learn) why she is what she is. Yet, even after that opening scene, even after we've seen her naked, so hallucinatorily persuasive is Hilary Swank in appearance and performance that it becomes next to impossible to shake off the conviction that she is a boy. And not just any boy, but an orchidaceously personable youth who, a decade ago, might have landed a leading role in Coppola's The Outsiders, that gaudy apotheosis of male adolescent volupté. (Not that either of the two performers is likely to appreciate the idea, but it would be fun to cast Swank in a kinky romantic comedy opposite Jaye Davidson from The Crying Game.)

Even though a lot of it was shot in exteriors, Boys Don't Cry is one of the most claustrophobic movies I've ever seen. The America it depicts so painfully is the America that foreigners never think of when they say how much they adore America, a covert, claustrophobic America more insular than Albania and more violent, potentially, than Liberia. Claustrophobic, too, is Swank's brilliant impersonation of a girl whose euphoria to be living out her fantasy as a boy is constantly gnawed at by her terror of exposure. One can see it, in his/her glassily fixed grin, the terror that some inquisitive cop with nothing better to do will insist on inspecting her ID or that, at a raunchy party, someone will put a playful hand on her crotch - and it will be all over for her. The moments in the movie hardest to watch are those in which nothing as yet has happened but anything might.

As I wrote above, Boys Don't Cry is not unflawed. Peirce has a tiresome tendency to "poeticise" her imagery (time-lapse cinematography of clouds flitting past a full moon, that sort of clichéd thing) and she seriously botches the movie's climax, which appears rushed and, even though faithful to the historical facts, contrived. These, though, are minor lapses: she gets the essentials right.

To the extent that we think of them at all, most of us recall the It Girls (remember Tara Palmer-What shername?) as a phenomenon of the nineties. As a definition of polymorphous sex appeal, however, the term "It" was actually coined in the twenties (if a one-syllable pronoun deserves to be termed a "definition") by the novelist Elinor Glyn and embodied by the pouty, eupeptic Clara Bow, the unflappable flapper, in a still watchable 1927 movie titled It. If Erin Brockovich hadn't been named after its heroine - and, of course, if seventy-odd years hadn't meanwhile elapsed - it could have been called It 2.

Like the original It, Steven Soderbergh's new comedy-drama is a star vehicle. And, like Clara Bow, its star, Julia Roberts, is currently queen of the cinema's It-parade, prettier, wittier and indeed Ittier than all her rivals combined. She's also the best reason for seeing Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh, an efficient but only intermittently distinctive filmmaker, bringing little more than his métier to the project. And even if one is cheered to know that it all - hmm, let's be realistic, that most of it - really happened, the plot is the by now ultra-familiar one of a modest legal firm taking on a battery of smarmy lawyers whose practices are as slick as their suits (lawyers hired, in this instance, by a giant utility company which has knowingly been contaminating the water supply) and, eventually, after numerous setbacks...

But no, I've promised to stop giving away endings, so you'll have to see for yourself whether the underdog triumphs over adversity or goes bust in the attempt. (If you need a clue, here's one: the movie is already an enormous box-office success in the States.)

Erin Brockovich is a charming, occasionally touching entertainment, but it would have been another big nothing (not even a big nothing - a small nothing) without Roberts. The woman genuinely has It, the way Clara Bow did, and Carole Lombard, and Jean Arthur, and Katherine Hepburn - in fact, it wouldn't be going too far to compare her deliciously bantering exchanges with a half-amused, half-bemused Albert Finney to the erotic tug-of-war of the old Hepburn/Tracy partnership. Roberts can move us nearly to tears (as when she is distraught to discover that, while she was off truculently righting the world's wrongs, her baby daughter spoke her first word), encapsulate a whole wretched life in the delivery of a single line ("I was Miss Wichita, for Christ's sake!") and talk dirty with such sexy aplomb it feels as though one's never heard salty language in the cinema before.

To cap it all, she looks the way she looks. (Not surprisingly, the real Erin Brockovich, who makes a brief cameo appearance in the film, is said to be enchanted by the portrayal.) As the cliché has it, the camera loves Julia Roberts. And so do we, through that camera, not unlike the way, in Being John Malkovich, Catherine Keener makes love to Cameron Diaz through Malkovich's head. Except that, in our case, alas, it's all too platonic.

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