Human Rights Watch 2014: Valentine Road – Documentary Review

Director: Marta Cunningham
Country: USA
Year: 2013
Runtime: 89 min
Rating: PG

Few films have the ability to disturb and cause a confliction of emotion like those based on truth. In Valentine Road (2013), first time feature documentary filmmaker Marta Cunningham takes a story that shocked an entire nation and delves deeper than the general public has been before.  The controversial story is highly divisive, and Cunningham expertly shows both sides of every argument before allowing a viewer to arrive at his or her own conclusions. A thorough film that examines all aspects of its tale, Valentine Road is a quiet piece that never resorts to sensationalism but is sure to prompt a strong reaction from viewers nonetheless.

Valentine Road

Many knew nothing of Oxnard, California, before the infamous murder that took place there in February of 2008. When fourteen-year-old Brandon McInerney bought a gun to school and shot his fellow eighth grade classmate Larry King in the middle of a lesson, the entire world seemingly became interested and involved. Openly gay King had asked McInerney to be his Valentine the day prior, prompting the horrific act. This film examines the tragic lives of both victim and perpetrator, and ultimately paints a harrowing portrait of the homophobia and racism that not only exists in parts of America today, but is also deemed acceptable by many educated adults in positions of authority.

Although it depicts a horrendous story, Valentine Road is not a harsh or overly dramatic film. Instead, this documentary adopts a gentler tone to mediate the horror of the events it relates. Narration provided by an incredibly strong young friend of King’s attempts to focus on the joy within this boy and the change and education that has come to the community due to the tragic episode. The music and presentation of the film also work to effectively avoid severity, and some episodes are presented through animated images as opposed to live action. Nevertheless, the film remains entirely unflinching, and depicts all sides of its story in a straightforward, albeit never over-the-top, manner. This delicate balance is an incredible achievement, and allows an audience to become invested in the film without the repulsion that easily could have arisen.

Valentine Road

The film consists mainly of interviews with individuals involved in the case, such as students who were present for the murder. One cannot help but feel shock when they realize that these young people were merely fourteen and fifteen years old at the time of the occurrence, yet they provide insights and ideas that speak to a much higher level of maturity. It is also welcome to see interviews with McInerney’s brothers and mother; although these individuals do not attempt to justify the perpetrator’s actions, they do offer a peek into a life full of abuse that cannot excuse but does offer some explanation as to his behavior. It is very important that a viewer is aware of all sides of a single story, and the film effectively reveals the lives of both King and McInerney. Interviews with former teachers horrify as they expose the stark differences in their reactions, and some will amaze while others disgust. The wider implications of this event are revealed as well, as one particularly supportive teacher now finds herself working at Starbucks after being ostracized by fellow colleagues. Finally, this film also delves into the particulars of a trial system that is able to try a fourteen-year-old as an adult, examining the pros and cons of such a policy.

The tone that Cunningham manages to create in this film is incredible, especially considering that Valentine Road marks her feature directorial debut.  Every aspect of the story is covered thoroughly, and in a manner that allows a viewer to draw his or her own judgments and conclusions. I personally can say that this film is one of the most horrifying and disturbing pieces that I have viewed in a while, prompting intense disbelief and anger, yet in a quiet and unfailingly respectful manner. I can only hope that it will have the same effect on many more viewers, and perhaps even cause the change for which the young narrator hopefully longs.