Sundance '13 Review: VALENTINE ROAD Effectively Examines A School Shooting
Director: Marta Cunningham
Writer: Marta Cunningham
Official Synopsis: On February 12, 2008, in Oxnard, California, eighth-grade student Brandon McInerney shot his classmate Larry King twice in the back of the head during first period. When Larry died two days later, his murder shocked the nation. Was this a hate crime, one perpetrated by a budding neo-Nazi whose masculinity was threatened by an effeminate gay kid who may have had a crush on him? Or was there even more to it?
When a transgendered 15-year-old boy named Larry is shot twice in the back of the head in front of his entire class, the murderer, Brandon McInerney, is quickly caught and put in jail. As the town of Oxnard reels from the loss, Brandon's fate hangs in the balance while massive media attention and sneaky lawyer tactics cause the trial to stretch out for years. Similar to last year's exhaustive documentary West of Memphis (about the West Memphis 3), this movie explores the backgrounds of the involved parties and provides context about why the murder occurred. But there's an important distinction between the two docs: the West Memphis 3 were innocent, while Brandon McInernery admitted pulling the trigger at point blank range.
Even after Brandon's confession and some damning evidence of him being a white supremacist, the jury still couldn't come to an agreement about the true nature of the crime. Was Brandon being bullied by Larry? Reports state that Larry, a flamboyant kid who wore makeup and high heels to school and was open about his sexuality, interrupted a basketball game Brandon was playing with his friends and asked him to be his Valentine, leaving Brandon embarrassed and humiliated. Interviews with members of the jury prove to be the second most horrifying element of the film (just behind the crime itself), as these people somehow defend Brandon's choice to shoot Larry (one woman claims Brandon was simply "solving a problem"). Moments like this make the subject matter in Valentine Road infuritating and highlight the fact that prejudice is as alive as ever, while some may find it easier to justify than others.
The film raises critiques of how the junior high school handled the aftermath of the shooting (not giving kids who witnessed the shooting proper counseling, looking down on a teacher for supporting Larry's decision to be proud of who he was, etc), as well as touching on issues like gun control, trying children as adults, and debating how much is "too much" when it comes to self-expression. Through interviews with both Brandon and Larry's friends, the doc tries to give us some insight into who they are (or were), and while this isn't the best documentary I've ever seen, it does a good job of examining the effect of the shooting on the community of this small California town.
With the events of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut fresh in viewers' minds, Valentine Road uses this specific case as a way to question not only how something like this could have happened and how we prevent future incidents, but at times questions the effectiveness of our entire justice system. It's also a modern-day horror film about the rampant intolerance in our culture. Regardless of your particular stances on any of the subjects raised, there is no way that any sane person can argue in favor of Brandon's actions, and while we get to see a montage of Brandon graduating from high school in jail, he took away Larry's chance to do the same and, thanks to the good ol' U.S. justice system, Brandon will be able to spend the latter years of his life free in the world while Larry lives on only in the memories of his friends, classmates, and residents of Oxnard, California. Valentine Road will move you, but it will also make you more cynical about the way the law works - and that might be the larger point the filmmakers were going for.