On February 12th, 2008, a 14 year old boy stood up in class and shot a fellow student twice in the back of the head. He fled the scene, was caught two blocks away and taken into custody. It was the beginning of a saga that rocked the suburban domiciles of Oxnard, California to their very core. The victim, one Lawrence “Larry” King, was a 15 year old who had recently come out as gay, the shooter was Brandon McInerny – they were both born of broken homes into a broken system.
And that’s the story that Valentine Road really tells, the tale of a country and a debate packed with people obsessed with being on one side of the fence or the other. The film tries very hard indeed to convince you that it’s towing the fine line in between, but ends up as a piece of biased, tonally uneven and frequently mawkish filmmaking that doesn’t provide this tragedy with the depth or balance that it deserves.
The supposed “many sides of the story” pertained to in the film’s production notes boil down to ten minutes in which Brandon’s familial history of violence, drug abuse and neglect is addressed. I assumed this was the beginning of an ongoing analysis of the two boys’ lives side by side, but that was the end of it. “Brandon’s side,” as we must unfortunately call it, is from then on represented by an assortment of variously despicable bigots and idiots rather than anyone who might have some analysis of actual worth.
This is not to detract from Brandon’s truly awful crimes, but where the film should be addressing where it all went wrong, it instead follows slow-witted jurors (who go on to describe first degree murder, and then insist that they had not just described first degree murder) and a near comically ludicrous school teacher who implies that Larry was asking for it. Brandon evidently had crippling emotional issues, but the prosecution sees his violent outbursts as “bullying” rather than anything more deep-seated.
And that’s the thing about incarceration, so many people are obsessed with the dealing of punishment that they swiftly forget this is a supposed opportunity for self-improvement. When you are put in prison, it is in the hope that you will have learnt your lesson by the time you get out. It is rarely that simple though, and writing off tortured people as animals to be locked away for an allotted time is dehumanizing in the extreme, regardless of their crimes. Following on from last week’s release of the powerful and resonant prison drama Starred Up, this instant profiling comes across as moronic over-simplification – and this is about real people.
Add to that the awkward clunks that punctuate the film’s second half, as it jumps between dour police testimonials, court-room analysis and cheesily soundtracked interviews with various Oxnard inhabitants. Aiming for a combination of factual accuracy and emotional resonance is completely possible, but in this case the two jostle together like incorrect puzzle pieces. Many of these interviews come across as contrived, including one ludicrous scene where a former school friend describes Larry as “like a butterfly” and then proceeds to have a large butterfly tattooed on her back in supposed tribute. Valentine Road attempts to both have its cake and eat it, and fails in both respects.
The film’s director, Marta Cunningham, proclaims in the production notes that Valentine Road was in part created as a response to “the prejudice I sensed in the initial media coverage.” This is a pretty laughable claim, as the film seems to spend much of its second half exasperatedly chuckling at the idiocy of Brandon’s defense attorneys rather than – I don’t know – looking further into his possible connection to, and influence by a group of neo-Nazis, which is mentioned and then glossed over in 5 minutes flat.
I am very, very aware indeed that I’m treading quite heavily on egg-shells here, but this is a story of great social and emotional significance that deserves proper, balanced treatment. Valentine Road is a badly made documentary, with cringe-worthy music queues, a false sense of even-handedness and a runtime padded out by interviews with people far too stupid and ill-informed to have anything of worth to say. It’s a heartbreaking and personal story which pertains to the larger tale of a country that so often refuses to look its own skewed legal system and bigoted values in the face, but it is told in a way that never properly addresses either the big or small picture. We hear the same handful of things reiterated about Larry over and over (often by the same people), rather than ever properly finding out about the person he truly was. By the end, it feels like nobody really knew him at all.
Valentine Road is an engrossing, multifaceted tale of pain and bigotry, as told by a moron.