Sundance Review: 'Valentine Road'
Shooting-tragedy documentary focuses on feelings -- at the expense of the facts
"Valentine Road," a documentary by Marta Cunningham that examines the aftermath and lead-up to a 2008 school shooting in Oxnard, California, presents a story it's impossible to not be moved by. Larry King, a 15-year-old boy who was already mocked and bullied for his flamboyant accessories and actions as he explored his gender identity, was playing a game in advance of Valentine's Day where you had to go tell someone you thought was cute that you'd like them to be your valentine. Larry told that to Brandon McInerney, a 14-year-old classmate.
In response, Brandon brought a gun to school and shot Larry in the back of the head. And then, as Larry lay bleeding, shot him again.
This story is a tragedy, to be sure, but "Valentine Road" commits the most egregious sin a documentary can -- specifically, relying on emotional first-person interviews and giving short shrift to the basic facts and events of the moment it purports to examine. It's important to look at Larry and Brandon's past -- both products of abuse, both products of a damaged homes, but when the film glosses over where Brandon got his weapon -- that it was one of many in the home of his father and grandfather -- you have to ask how a man who we're told shot his own wife years before was permitted to be a firearms owner. (Indeed, I had to look up if Brandon's father William ever served jail time for that act; he did.) Or why no criminal or civil charges were ever laid against the ostensible adults who enabled his murder through their negligence. There's some discussion of the school's attempt to change Larry's behavior, as he showed up to school 'accessorized' and in high-heeled boots, but we never get more in-depth explanation of what that means or how it was enacted.
We do get a series of fanciful animated sequences meant to show Larry's inner life -- which add little -- and a series of overpoweringly atonal score and soundtrack choices. We also go into the criminal justice system, where the local D.A. has to worry about her jury being comprised of stealth homophobes and where defense lawyers volunteer pro bono to try and make sure Brandon isn't tried as an adult: "We think he should be able to have a date on his calendar where he can know that's when he's getting out of jail." ("Valentine Road" will utterly, irrevocably and ruinously change your thoughts on the U.S. justice system; never has a trial by jury seemed like more of a farce.)
We're also told about California laws like Proposition 21 (which requires treating a 14-year-old who commits murder as an adult and possibly receive a sentence of life without parole) and SB 777 (which prohibits discrimination on gender and sexual orientation). But no legislation has ever prevented a thuggish youth from harming another, different youth, whether with fists or bullets, and anyone enamored of the fantasy that armed guards in schools will prevent school shootings should note that Brandon was, perhaps, 10 feet away from Larry when he pulled a gun from his backpack and shot Larry twice in less time than it took to read this sentence.
Cunningham has a remarkable talent for getting people to be their worst possible selves on camera -- we see three jurors from the initial mis-trial coo and giggle over Trader Joe's wine buys and sweets before asking why Brandon's civil rights weren't being protected from Larry's 'bullying,' and an ex-teacher of Larry's Shirley Brown says that she believes in a heaven and a hell, and that Larry wasn't aware of the consequences of his actions. We see Brandon get his GED and a graduation ceremony, and a plea-bargain means he'll be out of jail in 39 years. Larry, of course, is still dead.
Again, this is an important and sad story -- but when so many reasonable questions are left unanswered by a documentary, it's difficult to separate regard for "Valentine Road"'s its good intentions from the more pertinent question of if it is good film making, if the film would be better served by more information and less emotion. I was moved by "Valentine Road," and I was angered by "Valentine Road," but I wish that the film had given me facts to go with those feelings.