The documentary “Valentine Road,” which debuts on HBO
October 7, isn’t a film that provides easy answers.
In February of 2008,
15-year-old Lawrence “Larry” King was gunned down while in computer class.
Larry, who was openly gay, had recently been exploring his gender
expression, and would wear women’s makeup and high-heeled boots to his middle school
in Oxnard, California. Brandon McInerney, a fellow student, was so humiliated
when Larry asked him to be his Valentine during a playground game, that he shot
Larry twice in the back of the head the following day, in an act of apparently
The devastating case only became more complicated as details
emerged. Both Larry and Brandon led traumatic childhoods. In the months before his
death, Larry had been moved to a shelter for troubled foster kids. Meanwhile,
Brandon lived with his father, an abusive alcoholic, because his mother, a drug
addict, wasn’t capable of providing parental care. Brandon had become
increasingly interested in white supremacist thought, doodling swastikas in
notebooks. Larry was multi-racial, adding yet another dimension to the nature
of Brandon’s crime.
But that’s not all: Under a California law designed to deter
gang violence, 14-year-old Brandon could be tried as an adult. This meant he
would potentially face life in prison without the chance of parole.
First-time filmmaker Marta Cunningham and producer Sasha
Alpert knew this was a case with myriad issues at play. “We all thought it was
important that we make a film that didn’t tell you how to feel,” Alpert says. “That
seemed to us a more powerful way to go.”
Indeed, the film is remarkable in its even-handedness. Cunningham
interviews people close to both Larry and Brandon — from friends and family
members, to teachers and the defense and prosecuting attorneys — to give a
fully fleshed out sense of who these two teen boys are and were. There is no
demonizing, no monster-calling.
Cunningham describes maintaining that balance as “very
challenging,” but that “it was important for me to bear witness to everyone, and
make sure that everyone had a safe space to air their opinions.”
Even if those opinions made her extremely uncomfortable.
Cunningham, who is African-American, knew that she would be posed with personal
challenges from day one. Some of the interviewees would be racist, would
display the same white supremacist ideology that Brandon had become involved
in. “These were all things I was willing to do,” she says. “Because Larry had. I wanted to do this because
this is what our kids are dealing with.”
In a striking scene, Cunningham takes a fly-on-the-wall
approach as she films three jurors in Brandon’s case discussing their views.
The upshot of their conversation is that Larry’s homosexuality and
cross-dressing made Brandon so uncomfortable that he essentially forced Brandon to shoot him. (It’s a
sentiment that’s echoed, shockingly, by one of the teachers at Larry and
Brandon’s middle school, too.) Cunningham said she would shout out questions and
topics to the jurors occasionally, but generally just let them talk. Anyone who sees
the scene will realize the restraint that would have taken.
The process of making the documentary was enlightening for
Cunningham, too. “A huge piece of my research was discovering the organizations
that were behind Brandon,” she says. This included the ACLU and even LGBT
organizations. “I realized this was bigger than his ideology. This was
something that is happening in the state of California, that is not getting
recognized as a real issue. Our children are being sentenced with life terms,
at 14 years old.”
Brandon ultimately was not given the life sentence. He will
serve twenty years, to be released when he’s 39. Larry is buried at a cemetery
in Ventura, located on Valentine Road.
The documentary premiered this year at Sundance, where it scored
a Grand Jury Prize nomination. Cunningham describes the experience as “incredible,”
and relayed a story of three Mormon teens approaching her after the screening,
saying it had changed their views. “One
thing I’ve noticed about these screenings is that for virtually every one people
stay for the Q&A,” says Alpert. “They need to talk about the film after.”
Both Cunningham and Alpert stress that dialogue is what’s
needed in order to avoid a tragedy like this happening again.
In Cunningham’s words, we need to be “getting out there, and
getting into schools.”
“It needs to be a discussion between teachers,
administrators and students,” adds Alpert. “About what they hope for, what went
wrong in this case, and how to make things better in the future.”
“Valentine Road” airs October 7 on HBO.