Ever since she was found shot dead in a farmhouse outside the tiny rural community of Falls City, Nebraska, in 1993, 20-year-old Teena Brandon's remarkable life—in which she convincingly disguised herself as a boy, flip-flopping her name—has been embraced as a tragic plea for transgender tolerance. In Boys Don't Cry, Kimberly Peirce's passionate and acutely observed directorial debut, Brandon's story transcends the limitations of politics and lurid melodrama, evolving into a singular romance with much deeper emotional truths. Through some sort of casting miracle, Hilary Swank—an actress previously seen in The Next Karate Kid, Beverly Hills 90210, and other teen-oriented fluff—makes a stunning transformation in the critical lead role, which could have easily come off as a mannered acting stunt. It would be enough for her to capture the little physical details, such as the way Brandon holds a cigarette or her practiced vocal tone, but Swank also embodies her reckless spirit and underlying vulnerability. The question of whether or not her character will get caught, and the horrific inevitability of the answer, brings tension and immediacy to every scene. Peirce has an authentic feeling for the casually self-destructive rituals of bored Midwestern teenagers who pass their evenings by "bumper skiing" and sucking on aerosol cans, always waking up on a floor full of empties. At the center of all this chaos is a tender relationship between Brandon and a seductive local girl (the amazing Chloë Sevigny) that erases gender boundaries and presents an altogether different sort of love story. Rifling through the grim biographical details of Teena Brandon/Brandon Teena's world, Peirce found something meaningful to salvage. At its best, Boys Don't Cry practically shimmers with romantic optimism.