WHEN KIMBERLY PEIRCE calls her debut feature, Boys Don't Cry, a love story, she isn't just referring to the ill-starred romance between the film's lead characters. "I fell in love with Brandon," she says of her film's protagonist, Brandon Teena, a young woman who passed as a man and was eventually murdered for this perceived sin. "She was just a girl from a trailer park who didn't have much money, didn't have many role models; yet she fully transformed herself into her fantasy of a guy," says Peirce. "That's just unreal. So my intention was to totally bring him to life."

Peirce's film has already won critical acclaim, especially for her sensitive treatment of an event that's tantalizingly ripe for exploitation. Peirce found that most of the coverage of the 1993 murder "focused on the spectacle of this girl who passed as a boy. It's ripped from the headlines; it's potentially tabloid and sensationalistic, and the last thing I wanted to do was to render a sensationalistic story. If anything, I wanted to play against that by revealing the underlying emotional truth of who Brandon was."

Some have questioned the film's alterations of the real-life story. In a TV interview, Brandon's mother, who was not involved with the film, claimed that Boys Don't Cry was highly fictionalized. Peirce herself readily admits that some elements were changed for dramatic reasons. In the film, only Brandon and a female friend are murdered; in real life, a third man, who had been dating Brandon's girlfriend's sister, was murdered along with the two women. "Lana's sister wasn't a character in the movie," Peirce explains. "Therefore, there was no way to introduce him into the film. There was no point dramatically introducing a character that didn't really create the drama. He wasn't organically a part of the drama, so I moved him out."

Still, Peirce feels her alterations ultimately heightened the impact of her potent film. "I generally changed things to make them emotionally true," she says. "I just tried to look at the reality that was emerging from the chronology, and then began to tell the story. If anybody else encountered all the research I encountered, they wouldn't necessarily have an emotional truth. My job was to not only get all the information, but to carve out what most likely happened and find an organic unity to it. I feel as long as it's emotionally truthful, then you're providing a deeper insight into the story."

Boys Don't Cry is now playing at the Broadway Market.