Directed by Marta Cunningham
On February 12, 2008, in Oxnard, California, eighth-grade student Brandon McInerney shot his classmate Larry King twice in the back of the head during first period. When Larry died two days later, his murder shocked the nation. Was this a hate crime, one perpetrated by a budding neo-Nazi whose masculinity was threatened by an effeminate gay kid who may have had a crush on him? Or was there even more to it?
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★★★½ review by Shawn Palmquist on Letterboxd
Valentine Road is an maddening look at the somewhat recent murder of Lawrence King in an Oxnard, CA middle school. The murder occurred after Lawrence (a 14 year old homosexual middle school student) asked another student to be his Valentine…the other student being so offended and embarrassed by the situation that the next day he brought a gun to school and shot him in the back of the head. The documentary focuses mostly on the aftermath of the situation and is absolutely damning though it tries its best to be even and objective.
The situation is absolutely tragic. The idea that someone can be so unable to handle the thought of homosexuality and being associated with it, that they would resort to murder, is hard to fathom. What’s even harder to fathom though, is how scores of parents, teachers, jurors, and defense attorneys would come to the aid of the murderer with some ridiculous notion that he had no other option than to murder another student. This even after we are shown Nazi propaganda drawn by the murderer and video of him in prison being a hell raiser and picking fights with random people. Seeing a defense attorney get a ‘Free Brandon’ tattoo…or a teacher at the school say ‘I understand why he did what he did’…wha wha what?
This may be one case in which the aftermath of a tragic situation is even more confounding than the situation itself. My mouth was agape for most of this documentary, especially when the trial of the murderer begins. If anything this documentary is worth a watch for the social insights it provides on a situation like this and how different people react. Overall, this is a well-made and complete look at the case and something I’d consider required viewing for anyone with kids in middle school/high school. Really exposes the inherent nastiness, bigotry, and homophobia that can come out of otherwise normal seeming adults when something like this happens. Faith in human kind…knocked down a few rungs.
★★★½ review by Ashton Kinley on Letterboxd
We’d all be lucky to have a teacher as compassionate, supportive, and empathetic as Dawn Boldrin.
★★★★ review by Michael Scott on Letterboxd
You wouldn't think there could be any way that a documentary covering the shooting of a petite trans kid by a thuggish, insecure homophobic classmate could be balanced, but balance is the most impressive feature of Marta Cunningham's documentary feature debut, Valentine Road.
Cunningham starts with the facts: On the morning of February 12, 2008, during first period at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, California, 14 year old Brandon McInerney fired two bullets into the back of the head of his 15 year old classmate, Larry King. Kind died two days later in hospital.
The reason for the the shooting? A simple Valentine's request.
Working back from the killing, Cunningham builds a detailed picture of the lives of both Larry and Brandon and how their upbringings brought them to that fatal point. For Larry, it is a tale of foster homes, abuse and the discovery, not only of his sexual and gender identity but of the inner strength required to live so flamboyantly in such a conservative town. (I should note, I'm taking the lead of the film here and referring to Larry as he, though he went by many names; the day of his murder, he referred to himself as Leticia) While there is little actual footage of Larry in the film, the beautiful animation sequences leave us in no doubt of either his fabulousness or his fierceness.
For Brandon, early life was similarly brutal; his step-father was violent, his mother was addicted to methamphetamine; unfortunately though, his is journey towards establishing his self identity took an entirely different path.
Cunningham's approach to the lives of the two boys and the community's attitudes towards them and their actions after the killing is illuminative. As a film maker, though she has a clear stance, which focuses on social justice and the defence of diversity, her dedication to giving voice to those affected by this tragedy is unwavering. In a situation where community attitudes, community acceptance, and community support could have changed the outcome for both Brandon and Larry, Cunningham's decision to broadcast these attitudes is equal parts comforting and disturbing.
The old adage, "give them enough rope..." has never felt so applicable. To be frank, the attitudes of some in the Oxnard community are downright disgusting and I'm appalled that these people have these feelings, let alone voice them.
For every ally of Larry (his tattooed "big brother" in his group home, his queer friends, his astonishing English teacher, Dawn Boldrin) he has a detractor, usually a militant Christian and often, disturbingly, one of his school's teachers. Brandon, too, has his supporters, and Cunningham documents the community support for his defence as it gathers momentum throughout his trial, culminating bizarrely in his public interest lawyers (who initially joined the case, ostensibly to protest his trial as an adult - a cause Cunningham clearly supports) pleading their love for him.
Some may quibble with Valentine Road's approach to the "issues" at hand here, purely because Cunningham refuses to engage with them head on. Indeed, voices were ringing in my head when the film revealed how easily Brandon was able to secure a firearm for his attack and without raising the issue of gun control. Yet, on reflection, Cunningham's film is a more powerful experience because it dodges the traditional polemics. The collected experiences of the Oxnard community and the participants in the court proceedings form a complex mixture of acceptance and hatred, love and fear, hope and potential. Potential for both good and evil.
What emerges is a chilling picture of how these adults are failing the children of their community. How their poor behaviour is being learnt by their children; how they are using the minds of the young as the battleground for their prejudices; and how they are allowing those prejudice to crystallise into violence. The fallout is devastating for both children.
And many of them still cannot see the lesson.
Hopefully, the emotional power of Valentine Road will knock a little empathetic sense into Oxnard and the United States as a whole. It may well do; it is a film that trades in thoughts and feelings rather than preaching answers. There's some vain hope that, given the facts, some of these people may be able to evolve.
One has to be optimistic.
★★★★ review by Claire on Letterboxd
It highlights how intolerant we are, that intolerance is to such a degree that people bring it with them wherever they go, even in the jury box, and until we become a little more forgiving, a little more open-minded as a society, then tragic events like this will continue to be in vain.
★★★★★ review by Tom Normandy on Letterboxd
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