'A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story': Film Review

Overlong but affecting reminder that beauty is only skin deep.

A Texas woman with a rare medical condition becomes an anti-bullying spokesperson in this award-winning doc.

The first shot of Lizzie Velasquez in A Brave Heart — the documentary that won the audience award at this year’s SXSW — is designed to startle and provoke a reaction. Because she was born with a rare syndrome that made it impossible for her to gain weight, Velasquez weighed only 63 pounds at the age of 26.  Rail-thin, with exaggerated features, Velasquez faced bullying as a child and teenager, both at school and over the Internet. Instead of falling into suicidal depression, she resolved to fight back. The film that tells her story is an inspiring doc that may not hit gold at the box office but will certainly find an appreciative audience.

At the beginning of the film, Velasquez returns to the Texas elementary school where she was first the object of curiosity and scorn of her fellow students. But her most painful humiliation came later, when a YouTube posting of her picture labeled her “The World’s Ugliest Woman,” with some 4 million viewers signing in with hateful opinions.

The remarkable thing is that Lizzie never allowed the hostility to defeat her. In 2013 she addressed a TED conference in Texas and went on to become an internationally recognized anti-bullying spokesperson. Director Sara Hirsh Bordo sets out not just to honor Velasquez but to underscore some of the horrors of the Internet, which allows and encourages a new kind of hate speech.

Beyond this, the film examines the forces that allowed Velasquez to surmount her own personal difficulties and the cruelty in the larger culture. Here the film pays tribute to Lizzie’s parents. Her father is a teacher who worked in the same elementary school that Lizzie attended, and the film demonstrates what a difference it can be for a bullied child to have a nurturing home environment. Her family members come across not as saints but as decent people who never wavered in their support of their daughter.

The one problem with the film is that once it has established the issues and the outline of Lizzie’s story, it keeps hitting the same theme.  Even though it runs just 78 minutes, it still seems drawn-out. Late in the film, Lizzie visits a doctor to learn more about her health problems, but this issue probably should have been explored more thoroughly. One wonders if A Brave Heart might have been more effective as a short film than as a feature. The characters and the story compel our attention, but the film runs out of steam before the end.

Production: Women Rising Production
Director-producer: Sara Hirsh Bordo
Screenwriter: Michael Campo
Executive producers: Julia Argyros, Stephanie Argyros, Lizzie Velasquez, Alexis Jones, Justine Ezarik
Director of photography: Ben Powell
Editor: Christopher Roldan
Music: Sara Bareilles, Javier Dunn

No rating, 78 minutes