Picture the scene. You’re in computer class. It’s eighth grade and you’re finishing an assignment about Anne Frank. There’s a hum of chatter against the rata-tap-tap of syncopated keys. A kid gets out of his seat. He approaches a classmate, pulls a gun from his sweatshirt pocket and shoots twice, at point blank range, right into the back of his peer’s head. Two days later the boy is dead. On February 12 2008, in the provincial town of Oxnard on the Californian coast, this was Lawrence “Larry” King’s fate. He was 15. His shooter, Brandon McInerny was one year younger. “Valentine Road”, a remarkable debut by Marta Cunningham, asks how one child could come to shoot another in such clinical, desperate circumstances. The result is quite possibly one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.
At first glance the story might seem easy to tell. There is a murderer and his victim. In a world so rife with homophobia, Larry was no doubt targeted for his decision to wear women’s clothes, and for his nascent flirtation with his eventual killer. “Valentine Road” doesn’t undermine this conclusion, it goes beyond it. Cunningham is not content to tell a binary story of good and evil, she is too smart for that. Instead her film is a nuanced investigation into the question of how children become the adults they do.
By canvassing the idea that Brandon might be as much a victim as Larry, Cunningham resists the kind of dehumanizing narratives which often surround acts of brutality. She does not immediately dismiss Brandon as an anomaly, an aberration. She reveals instead a child subjected to repeated abuse himself, brought up in a gun-mad, volatile household, with little by way of positive role-models. He cannot control his temper because tempers were never controlled around him. The viewer is buffeted back and forth from sympathy to sympathy as Cunningham peels back each ever-more complicated narrative layer.
Simply to paint Brandon as a monster would have been to obscure all of the other acts of hate and prejudice that led to Larry’s murder. In many ways this is a film about societal failure. Few come out well. Juries are exposed for their grotesque biases, teachers for their nasty closed-mindedness, lawyers for their frankly creepy (in Brandon’s case) obsession with their client, and parents, ultimately, for their negligence. The film repeatedly reveals the double-standards applied to a young, queer person of colour and his white supremacist killer. A forensic scientist confidently states that Larry asking Brandon to be his Valentine was an act of sexual harassment. There is no similar comment when Brandon writes to his teenage girlfriend from prison and assigns her his surname before even proposing. The former is an act of harassment, the latter the straight white man’s romantic entitlement.
It is no surprise that HBO are releasing “Valentine Road” later this year. The closest equivalent in terms of social commentary and nuanced story-telling I can think of is “The Wire”. Cunningham’s film leaves you feeling a similar mix of impotence and hopelessness for all involved. That “Valentine Road” wasn’t nominated for an Oscar says more about the Academy than it does about the film. It is one of the most subtle meditations on class, race and systemic institutional prejudice as you can hope to watch. It puts up a mirror to an area of contemporary American society that many might prefer to pretend does not exist.
The last word, though, rightfully lies with Larry, or perhaps better, with Larry-Laetitia, as Cunningham refers to him. She does so because in the last weeks of his life ‘Laetitia’ was how he began to refer to himself. At the same time he experimented with new modes of self-expression: make-up, heels, artifacts of femininity to which he was legally entitled but for which he was murdered. His friends – who make powerful cameos in the film – all noticed how much happier he was. Larry-Laetitia died because we still live in a culture that values arcane prejudice over the lives of LGBT children. This film is essential viewing for anyone animated by the injustice of this truth.
Cunningham achieves such a subtle, sucker-punch of a film by drawing together the tenacity of an investigative journalist with the narrative sensibilities of the finest novelists. The ‘valentines’ trope echoes through the film to heart-wrenching effect. It should not be underestimated what an achievement it is to take on so complex a story and to expose its layers with such a meticulous lightness of touch. “Valentine Road” announces Cunningham as a singular talent. It is exhilarating to consider what she might bring us next.