'Audrie & Daisy': Sundance Review

Audrie & Daisy still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Utterly devastating, but essential viewing.

Acclaimed documentarians Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk explore the parallel experiences of two high school girls who were sexually assaulted by peers.

Wrenching to watch, but told with clarity and guts, Audrie & Daisy documents two high school girls who were both sexually assaulted in unrelated incidents. In both cases, the perpetrators filmed their handiwork and gloatingly shared the results on the Internet. Victim Daisy Coleman soon found herself at the center of a court case and a massive media storm; victim Audrie Pott, thinking her life was ruined, committed suicide eight days after her assault. Documentary-makers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (The Island President) recount the stories of the titular pair, who never met, and those of others like them, to create a vital film about rape culture and survival which at least offers a small sliver of hope by its end.

Although this was not yet picked up by a distributor by the time of publication, acquisition looks highly likely. In the right hands, this could do as well commercially as The Hunting Ground, Kirby Dick’s exposé of rape culture on college campuses, which also premiered at Sundance, if not better than that film’s $405,000 box-office total. However, it is documentaries like this that make one wish there were a federal agency that could just step in, reward the filmmakers handsomely for their noble efforts and then ensure every child in the country sees this for free by the time they graduate from middle school.

Moving, both literally and figuratively, from darkness to light, Audrie & Daisy starts out with heavily digitized and altered footage of interviews with the young men who violated Saratoga, Calif.-based sophomore Audrie Pott in 2012. (Some of the footage is from their court depositions, and some of it comes from interviews they were legally obliged to give the filmmakers as part of the settlement in a civil case brought by Audrie’s parents.)

At a Labor Day weekend party, effervescent Audrie drank way more than she could handle. While passed out, she was carried to an upstairs bedroom where boys she’d known since elementary school scrawled obscene things all over her body with Sharpies, and then sexually assaulted her while one of them filmed the scene. The footage was circulated among their social circle and Audrie, so distraught over the thought that her reputation was ruined forever, hung herself.

Missouri teenager Daisy’s story parallels Audrie’s in some ways — another tragic collision between an excessive amount of alcohol, entitled high school athletes with brains in their jockstraps and the moral sense of mollusks, and cellphone footage — but the outcome was very different. Even though the Nodaway County Sheriff videotaped Matthew Barnett admitting that he "had sex" with Daisy and his friend Jordan Zech acknowledging that he filmed the event, both of them ended up getting off scot-free. The doc neatly avoids libeling anyone but does draw attention to the fact that Barnett’s grandfather was a congressman, and lets Sheriff Darren White and local Mayor Jim Fall hoist themselves upon their own petards as they parade their vile, sexist attitudes before the camera.

Daisy, however, became the victim of a nauseating bullying campaign on social media, and eventually the Colemans’ house was burned down. She, too, attempted suicide but luckily survived, thanks surely to what looks like a fantastically supportive family, whose testimonies are just as moving as Daisy’s or those from Audrie’s friends and family. But arguably the most tear-inducing scene in this very emotional, anger-provoking film is the one where Daisy meets Delaney Henderson, another victim of high-school rape introduced earlier in the doc, and a whole room full of survivors. Together, they share their stories — with each other, and with the viewer — determined to not let a culture of silence and shame tacitly enable further sexual violence.

Once the tears have dried, and a little time has passed after viewing, it’s possible to see that Audrie & Daisy is not a perfect film. The timeline of events is sometimes confusing, and maybe, just maybe, a little too much time is spent hearing from Daisy’s admittedly incredibly likeable older brother Charles, who refrained from beating the perpetrators to a pulp and is now trying to help other young men learn respect for women. Also, the musical score is sometimes a bit too forcefully manipulative, the sort of mournful droning I like to call Dead Puppy Music, while the gloomy animation lays on the emo atmosphere of despair with a small trowel.

Then again, maybe the deployment of such obvious devices is exactly what’s needed to help get the movie’s message across to a mass audience. It's possible to underestimate how much the general public needs things spelled out in simple words and bright colors with sad music to grasp important points. Just like the way we overestimate the capacity of young men — reared these days on pornography, entitlement and freely available drink and drugs — to have the sense and self-control not to give into their basest desires.

Production companies: An AfterImage Public Media production in association with Actual Films
Directors: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk
Producers: Richard Berge, Sara DosaBonni Cohen
Executive producers: Dan CoganGeralyn White Dreyfous, Regina K. Scully, Cindy Waitt, Barbara Dobkin, Eric Dobkin, Jamie Wolf, William Hirsch
Director of photography: Jon Shenk
Editor: Don Bernier, Kirsten Johnson
Composer: Tyler Strickland
Animation director: John Hays
Visual effects supervisor: Drew Takahashi
Design and additional animation: Scott Grossman
Sales: UTA
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Not rated, 95 minutes