IN "BOYS Don't Cry," Teena Brandon (Hilary Swank) is a delicate young woman with a powerful impulse: to find her true self in the sexually unchartered zone between male and female. But in Kimberly Peirce's heartbreaking movie, that no man's land is fraught with mines.

Based on the true story of Brandon, who was slain on Christmas Eve in the early 1990s by two ex-cons in Nebraska, this movie is a dismaying descent to a cruel, foregone conclusion.

But director Peirce (see interview, Page 49), who wrote the script with Andy Bienen, has created a deeply sympathetic story that transforms Brandon's tragic life into a sweetly textured metaphor for sexual identity and freedom. And in Hilary Swank, Peirce has cast the perfect actor -- someone who passes convincingly as a man and with whom anyone could fall in love.

Swaddling her breasts with bandages, cutting her hair short and wearing a cowboy hat and plaid shirt, Teena leaves her hometown of Lincoln, Neb., to begin an entirely new life in Falls City. Inverting her name to Brandon Teena, she frequents bars and becomes the guy she always wanted to be, confident, swaggery and eager to meet women.

There's a quality in Brandon that everyone -- male or female -- responds to. "He" can play tough and he can play gentle.

Then comes the love that triggers everything: Brandon falls for Lana (Chloe Sevigny), a tough-talking but needy woman who is seeking someone different. When Lana meets Brandon, her prayers are answered. He has a face that's smoother than a woman's, but so what? He also has a sensibility that's attuned to her needs. He's too good to be true.

But then, what is "true"? And what does anyone seek when they seek truth? This is the overriding question in "Boys Don't Cry." For the smitten Lana, Brandon is the man she always wanted, inconvenient truth be damned.

Is she aware that Brandon is using a prosthetic device during their passionate encounters? Does Brandon's feminine manner seem suspicious? And what happens when those bandages slip away? Such questions are unimportant to Lana, whose life is empty and unfulfilled.

"God I hate my life," says Lana, when she brings Brandon home to a drunk mother.

"I hate your life, too," says Brandon gently. By rejecting their respective pasts, they are bonded forever, no matter what happens.

Trouble always is brewing among Lana's scuzzy associates, particularly John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III), who befriend the Brandon they think they know. But when Brandon drives the car for a drunken John one night and takes a thrill ride, he attracts the cops and sets himself up for humiliating disclosure.

It's only a matter of time before that Lincoln past rears its female head. And John's reaction to what he considers abject treachery can only lead to one thing. The concluding events are grim and need little explication, except to say we're forced to watch the fatal waning of the movie's brightest light. But in Peirce's shining vision, the love between Brandon and Chloe never dims. And it continues to burn long after the forces of fear would snuff it out.

BOYS DON'T CRY (R, 114 minutes) -- Contains brutality, rape, obscenity and nudity. At Hoyts Potomac Yard 16 and Cineplex Odeon Janus 3.