Film critics are often seen as a cynical bunch, eager to tear into anything too sweet or sincere and mock it in quippy headlines and snarky pull quotes. But “A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story” threatens to melt even the grinchiest of hearts in its audience, sending us to thesaurus.com looking for alternatives to avoid overusing the word “inspiring.” Criticizing a capably made documentary whose primary goal is to educate its audience about the triumph of a woman who won’t be a victim of cyberbullying could put you on the level with a cruel, faceless YouTube commenter.
Sara Hirsh Bordo’s directorial debut explores the moving story of Lizzie Velasquez. Born in 1989 with a rare genetic disorder, Velasquez experienced bullying and isolation as a young girl who didn’t look like her classmates as she was unable to gain weight and had issues with her sight. But her buoyant spirit and supportive family pushed her past the pain and made her a favorite with those around her. The galvanizing moment in her story was when she happened upon a YouTube video of herself at 17-years-old with the title “The World’s Ugliest Woman” and even meaner comments beneath it. Velasquez was devastated, but she pushed past it to become a champion for those like her who experience bullying in real life and on the internet. Her TEDx talk got millions of views on the same platform where she was harassed, pushing her into the spotlight. She uses her fame and experience to advocate for others in her position, not only in motivational speeches around the world, but also in working to get Congress behind the Safe Schools Improvement Act. This would be the first national legislation that addresses cyberbullying and its dangers, and Velasquez’s personal narrative helps garner support on her visit to Washington, DC.
‘A Brave Heart’ doesn’t dive too deeply into any of its questions or show a Velasquez who is anything less than perfect and inspiring at all times. It comes closest to revealing its subject as imperfect when Velasquez discusses her weaknesses, but even that comes across as saintly. If she were a character in a narrative film, viewers would scoff at how unerringly positive and uplifting she is. But given that the most important demo in the audience — kids and teens — the less challenging approach makes sense and is ultimately hard to find too much fault with.
Similarly, the brief divergence in sharing Tina Meier’s story initially seems like a distraction, rather than adding additional color to the narrative. In her efforts to gain support for the Safe School’s Improvement Act, Velasquez meets with Meier, a mother whose daughter committed suicide after being bullied, and then she doesn’t play a part for the rest of the film. The story of her daughter, Megan, provides a counterpoint to Velasquez’s own, with Meier’s experience illuminating how dangerous bullying and cyberbullying can be. Initially, ‘A Brave Heart’ seemed like it would’ve been more effective had it focused solely on Velasquez or shared a bit more about Meier and others’ stories, but it is more intent on telling an ultimately positive experience as motivation.
I may get a little verklempt every time I hear just the opening bars of “Brave” by Sara Bareilles, so a score and soundtrack largely supplied by the singer and her former lead guitarist, Javier Dunn, feels like the perfect fit for this emotional film. There’s rarely been such a perfect fit between the lyrics of an appropriated song and a film’s subject matter. Bareilles contributed an original song, “Beautiful Girl,” and a new version of “Brave,” as well as vocals for Dunn’s score. This is also a choice that should spark feelings in the target audience, as well as draw some additional attention to the film.
The film’s goal is the same as Velasquez’s with the Safe Schools Improvement Act, putting a human face and story to the issue helps persuade people to their cause. Hirsh Bordo’s first film isn’t ambitious in its style or structure, but it is entirely effective at communicating its encouraging message to the audience. [B]