Just over a month after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the story of another elementary school shooting will premiere in the U.S. Documentary Competition at Sundance. “Valentine Road,” directed by Marta Cunningham, focuses on the fallout of 14-year-old Brandon McInerney’s decision to shoot eighth grade classmate Larry King in their school’s computer lab in Oxnard, California in 2008. King, who was targeted by McInerney for being openly gay, succumbed to his gunshot wound days later; McInerney remained stuck in juvenile detention for three years before his case eventually went to court.
The movie compellingly shifts between the backstories of the two boys, both of whom endured challenging adolescent experiences that culminated in tragedy. King was neglected by his parents and wound up in a home for neglected children, and had just started to express himself as transgender by wearing women’s clothing to school when McInerney shot him. McInerney suffered routine abuse at the hands of his raging alcoholic father and fell under the influence of white power propaganda. Whether McInerney actually believed the hate speech he began to obsess over remains unclear, but when King allegedly asked him to the prom, the disturbed McInerney felt compelled to respond with horrific finality.
Nevertheless, the events that followed the killing were not so cut-and-dry. King rapidly gained attention as a martyr for gay rights causes, famously leading Ellen Degeneres to tears on her talk show while discussing the crime. But McInerney found a fair share of supporters among those either opposed to allowing the court to convict a minor or, worse, convinced that he was unfairly provoked by the late King. Produced by HBO, the movie strings together this debate with subjects ranging from King’s former classmates, McInerney’s confused relatives, the two boys’ ex-teacher and a confoundingly naive, vaguely homophobic group of jurors from an initial mistrial, who shrug off McInerney’s guilt while munching on wine and desserts.
Unlike the media coverage of Sandy Hook, “Valentine Road” wrestles with far more issues than merely gun control. As with the Sundance NEXT entry “Blue Caprice,” a dramatization of the 2002 D.C. sniper incidents, “Valentine Road” engages with the personal conditions behind gun violence in search of the appropriate moral compass for judging them. It takes a stab at misdirected laws that allow teen murders to receive leniency they may not always deserve. But it also provides an equally insightful look at other issues that have gained prominent national attention in recent months. With gay marriage rights on the rise, King, who had started asking classmates to call him Latisha, stands as a symbol of the continuing challenges faced by gay youth even as older generations continue to make great strides.
Like last year’s breakout documentary hit “Bully,” this story views the antagonism between confused young people as a disease in search of a cure (an end credit in “Valentine Road” points out that 83% of transgender students have been bullied). One student hopes that the climate for gay students grows more tolerant “in the next 100 years,” a long-term prediction bound to instigate plenty of responses following the film’s world premiere.