Autodidact filmmaker Marta Cunningham has made a stunning multi-faceted film about a very high-profile and gruesome killing: the point-blank range school shooting of Larry King, a young student exploring his gender identity in a California mega-suburb, by his classmate. The film, a part of Sundance’s U.S. Documentary Competition, will be released later this year on HBO.
What It’s About: “Valentine Road” is about how the effects of one boy’s horrible action affected an entire community and justice system.
And So It’s Really About: In February 2008, a classroom shooting shattered the coastal, working-class town of Oxnard, California. As the community reeled and the national media descended, a 15-year-old lay dead and his 14-year-old attacker awaited trial for murder. Was this a hate crime, retaliation for unwanted playground flirting or something more complex?
The sensationalized tale of a flamboyant young Latino pushing an emerging young white supremacist to his breaking point made for great headlines and drew attention to the plight of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens, as well as the overwhelmed educational and juvenile justice systems. But it only scratched the surface of the real story. “Valentine Road” picks up where the traditional media coverage left off, delving deeper to explore the entwined paths of victim Lawrence “Larry” King and his killer, Brandon McInerney. Family, friends, teachers and classmates of the two young men, as well as their attorneys, law enforcement officials, jurors and mental health professionals, discuss the aftermath of the deadly incident, the trial and its impact on the community.
Through interviews, cinema verite, and the examination of details and documents leading up to and including that fateful day (later brought into trial) filmmaker Marta Cunningham unravels the multifaceted human narrative that links Larry and Brandon as tragic figures from surprisingly similar backgrounds. Both were deeply troubled individuals unsure of their places in the world after growing up in broken homes and suffering physical and emotional abuse. The film examines social issues and the very notion of justice, and asks key questions facing schools all over the country: what do you do to help kids like Brandon and Larry before violence occurs – and what do you do after you’ve failed?
What’s been your path to filmmaking? I love storytelling. I began telling stories through dance and then later on through acting and writing. What I realized with “Valentine Road” is the story had to be told through the medium of documentary, and not as fiction. There were so many nuances that would have been lost in any other form. I wanted to catch the story as it was unfolding and have the participants speak for themselves.
You waited to see how Brandon’s trial ended. How did that impact the filmmaking? My biggest challenge ended up being my greatest asset. Waiting 3 1/2 years for the trial to conclude so I could get some of the most significant interviews, enabled me to create a level of trust with the children closest to the victim, and reveal the changes taking place in their lives while they came to terms with their terrible loss.
What previous films impacted this one? “Girlhood” by Liz Garbus, “The Brandon Teena Story” by Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”
What will you expect of Sundance audiences? I want audiences to feel that we all can play a part in protecting children like Larry, to be inspired to want to protect the children who are like Larry now. I want audiences to question the Juvenile Justice system, and be capable of understanding children like Brandon also; so that we are not judging any children as hopeless cases.
Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2013 festival.
Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch of the festival on January 17 for the latest profiles.