In 2012, two different girls from two different towns on two different ends of the country were sexually assaulted by boys they thought were their friends. On a cold January night in Missouri, Daisy Coleman left her home to hang out with some friends of her older brother, one of whom raped her and eventually dumped her in her own icy front yard. Later in the year, Audrie Pott was assaulted at a party by two fellow students she considered to be pals. Both Daisy and Audrie pursued criminal charges against their assailants, and both girls were taunted online for what happened to them, thanks to the spread and prevalence of social media in their respective high schools. That’s where the big similarities stop.
In their "Audrie & Daisy," filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk attempt to cobble together the unsettling parallels between Audrie and Daisy’s cases to provide an insightful look at the ways in which teen sexual assault play out in American high schools, how they’re handled by authority figures and the damning effects social media can have on the most vulnerable of victims.
Unfortunately hobbled by unclear storytelling and a resistance to dig deeper into the cases, "Audrie & Daisy" fails to engage on multiple levels, a result that’s all the more frustrating because of the true impact these stories, well-told, could have on viewers.
In choosing Audrie and Daisy as their subjects, Cohen and Shenk appear to be making a statement on the various ways these types of assaults can play out. Audrie, portrayed here as a friendly but modest teen, attempted to solve her own assault by engaging with the very boys who committed it against her (the film does succeed when it comes to artfully recreating social media, and Audrie’s desperate Facebook messages are wrenching to watch), while Daisy and her mother went straight to the cops within hours of the crime. One of the most painful missed opportunities of the film is a resistance to take a closer look at the sheriff’s department that investigated Daisy’s case, including a plainspoken cop whose ideas on sexual assault and what it means to be a teen girl are so backward and heinous that he rivals "Making a Murderer" prosector Ken Kratz as the current true crime bad guy du jour.
Their approaches were different, and so were the outcomes — Audrie killed herself the week after her assault, while Daisy has become an advocate for other sexual assault victims. The violations committed against them couldn’t be more alike, but it’s the results that alter their stories.
Which is why it’s so strange that Cohen and Shenk don’t hinge their story on such upsetting differences, instead bisecting Audrie and Daisy’s lives into almost wholly separate sections in the film. Audrie’s story leads off, occupying about 15 minutes of screen time, before switching over to nearly an hour focused on Daisy, which will likely leave audiences wondering just why Cohen and Shenk decided to tell two stories that seem so obviously ripe for weaving together when the bulk of the film is occupied with just a single narrative.
The film draws weak parallels between the two stories on occasion — there’s enough shots of both of the football teams from the girls’ schools, though the influence of high school sports on the crimes is never discussed in depth — and social media surely played a part in the aftermath of both crimes, but nothing coalesces to provide a big picture look at their stories.
Although Cohen and Shenk’s inventive use of graphics to convey the look and feel of social media (Facebook messages type out across the screen in realistic fashion, while stark white tweets and hashtags crop up against an aerial view of Daisy’s town of Maryville), other animated takes on the material fall flat, including a recreation of the night of Daisy’s rape that uses fussy drawings that appear to be based on her own work and stylized versions of interviews with Audrie’s rapists that are haunting in perhaps unintended ways).
But the influence of social media doesn’t hit hard enough, and audience members who are not as plugged in as the teenage set will likely fail to understand just how deeply utilities like Twitter and Facebook impacted both Audrie and Daisy. The film tells; it rarely shows.
In its final moments, Cohen and Shenk finally try to loop together Audrie and Daisy in a more tight and evocative way, but the results are jumbled, robbing what should be a wrenching and illuminating last act of most of its power. There’s more than enough story to tell here, maybe too much for just one film, no matter how well-meaning it may be.
"Audio & Daisy" premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival. Netflix will release it sometime this year.