Valentine Road: Sundance Review
Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
A 2008 California hate crime that resulted in the death of 15-year-old Larry King is the subject of Marta Cunningham's powerful documentary.
PARK CITY – Marta Cunningham’s stirring pro-tolerance documentary, Valentine Road, chronicles the emotional aftermath and clumsy legal process that followed the killing of 15-year-old Lawrence “Larry” King by a middle-school classmate in 2008. But arguably the most shocking moment in this impassioned case study is not the crime itself. It’s a comment from one of three San Fernando Valley women who served on the trial jury. After they discuss wine bargains at Trader Joe’s and sit down to eat cake, she defends the trio’s outrageous bias by saying of the shooter: “He was solving a problem.”
That warped perception is masked as concern for the rights of 14-year-old Brandon McInerney, who shot King twice at point-blank range in the back of the head in computer class at E.O. Green Junior High School in the California beach town of Oxnard. It’s the type of flagrant prejudice that is sadly indicative of many attitudes surrounding this hate crime. To the filmmaker’s credit, she allows the people sharing those views – jurors, defense attorneys, teaching staff – to dig themselves into their own pit of narrow-mindedness, without the need for external commentary.
Cunningham’s film is timely in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings and the current amplification of the national gun-law debate. (McInerney had access to a selection of his grandfather’s guns and ammunition stored in his bedroom.) But it’s equally relevant to the wave in recent years of tragedies resulting from school bullying, particularly with regard to sexual orientation.
The key factor behind King’s murder was that he had begun, in the weeks before he died, to experiment openly with gender identity, wearing high-heeled boots and makeup to school. During a pre-Valentine’s Day game with his girlfriends, Larry publicly declared his crush on Brandon, who felt humiliated in front of his basketball pals. No one actually says Larry had it coming, but that opinion is disturbingly clear from multiple channels, much like the countless cases in which rape victims are smeared for allegedly provoking their attackers. “They made a murder victim the cause of his own murder,” says Det. Dan Swanson, a hate-crime expert and witness for the prosecution.
Cunningham empathetically lays out a distressing picture of both boys’ troubled childhoods.
King and his brother were adopted at a young age by abusive parents, but when bruises were discovered on his body, he was placed in a shelter. That environment gave him an unaccustomed taste of friendship and acceptance, encouraging him not only to come out but also to adopt a more assertive female alter ego that drew on the black half of his mixed-race ethnicity.
McInerney had a similarly damaging upbringing. Unlike his half-brothers, who had their share of drug and alcohol episodes, he was the relatively well-behaved kid in the family. But when his drug-addicted mother went into rehab, Brandon was forced to move in with his violent father, who took him on drug runs while binging on crystal meth. He was also exposed to white-supremacist ideology, as illustrated by the Nazi iconography sketched throughout his notebook.
But while evidence indicates that King’s murder was premeditated, the object of the film is not to demonize McInerney, who was a confused kid at the time. And the boy’s family members show greater grief for his actions than many of the supposedly dispassionate interview subjects. It’s bizarre, to say the least, to watch pro bono defense attorney Robyn Branson declare her love for Brandon through tears, calling him “one of my favorite people on the planet,” and admiring “his spirit, his energy.”
Then there’s Brandon’s girlfriend, condemning Larry for “shoving it in everyone’s face,” and a 30-year veteran schoolteacher righteously implying that he brought it on himself by being open about something that should have remained a secret. The level of socially accepted discrimination exposed here provokes both heartbreak and anger.
One alternate juror on the case wrote an open letter to the judge, which was cc’ed to the prosecuting attorney, several networks and news outlets, and – wait for it – to God, calling the trial “a tragedy and a propaganda witch hunt,” and pointing to King’s “long history of deviant behavior.” Prosecutor Maeve Fox acknowledges bitterly that her jury-selection skills were not the sharpest.
Considerable detail is given to the handling of the trials and the maneuvers by Branson and her associate Scott Wippert to have Brandon prosecuted as a juvenile, not an adult, which became standard under California’s Prop. 21 law to combat the increase in gang-related juvenile gun violence. This tactic, as well as moves to shift the trial to a location where public sentiment against Brandon was less heated, led to long delays. The initial push for life imprisonment was downgraded in a plea bargain to 21 years without parole for second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.
Irrespective of where anyone stands on whether this was a just punishment or not, the imperfect mechanisms for dealing with this type of case under California law are acknowledged by legal representatives on both sides.
The film also sheds light on the inadequacies of teacher training in helping teens wade through sexual-identity issues in volatile school environments. Dawn Boldrin, the teacher in charge of the class when King was shot, describes him as “a sweetheart of a kid,” but her compassionate efforts to encourage his gender expression attracted criticism from colleagues. Ultimately, whether some of Boldrin’s nurturing gestures were thought through or not is left open to interpretation, but the teacher ended up losing her job and working at Starbucks.
Cunningham and editor Tchavdar Georgiev build a layered picture of the multiple lives touched by this tragedy, with skillful use of music to heighten the emotional impact. Nowhere is that stronger than in the testimonials of Larry’s bereaved friends and classmates and the LGBT youth who celebrate his courage while mourning his senseless loss.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production companies: BMP Film, in association with Eddie Schmidt Productions
Director: Marta Cunningham
Producers: Sasha Alpert, Marta Cunningham, Eddie Schmidt
Executive producers: Jon Murray, Gil Goldschein, Sheila Nevins
Director of photography: Arlene Nelson
Music: Michael Orendy
Editor: Tchavdar Georgiev
Sales: HBO Documentary Films
No rating, 86 minutes.