Intro: Before we start reviewing the HBO Fall Documentary Series I feel that a few reminders on the approach taken are needed. Each review is actually written in a slightly different order than the way they are constructed. I’ll watch the trailer for each film and leave it at that. Even though I have an HBO Press Release I don’t read it. I then write the Expectation section; then I watch the film and then the Gut Reaction is written. It is not until I get that to post that I add the Overview and the Conclusion to bookend the piece. It is purposefully written that way in order to leave me unprepared for the documentary and to truly give a gut reaction without much influence. I’m looking forward to the experience, so here we go.
Overview: Feb. 12, 2008, started like any other day at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, a California beach town northwest of Los Angeles. Some eighth-grade students filed into the computer lab to do an assignment on the topic of tolerance. But before the class was over, 15-year-old Lawrence “Larry” King lay fighting for his life. Two days later, on Valentine’s Day, Larry died the victim of a crime that grabbed national headlines and dramatically changed the lives of the students, teachers and community. VALENTINE ROAD explores the murder of the teenager who had begun exploring his gender identity, revealing the circumstances that led to the shocking crime, as well as its complicated aftermath. It is directed and produced by first-time filmmaker Marta Cunningham. It features interviews with a broad range of people whose lives were touched by the killing, including students who witnessed the murder as well as family members, teachers, attorneys and detectives. Their candid comments highlight the complexities of the case.
Expectations: Well, our first documentary is a murder case. The expectation therefore is an easy one; explain it to me. Regardless if they use archival footage, witnesses like families & investigators or even reenactments doesn’t matter we just need to understand the particulars of the case. Is there something unique or suspicious about the case to warrant this film? Truthfully, I am thinking that it needs to play out similar to the summer documentary THE CHESHIRE MURDERS. Something amiss or compelling needs to be at the heart of this.
All I know going into this is that a teenager was murdered and that this victim was of the GLBT community. Hell, I don’t even know the significance of the film’s title; I’m assuming it is the locale of the crime. I clearly need to know more. It is clearly time to watch VALENTINE ROAD and end the speculations.
Gut Reaction: My first declaration is stating how stupid I am. I did not realize at all that this case was the same story that I vaguely remember got national attention. It didn’t dawn on me until about half way through the film when a clip from the Ellen DeGeneres Show was shown replaying Ellen’s dismay at the incident. At that point it clicked with me that this is the story that got the nation going on its anti-bulling campaign. The focus of the piece changed at that moment and so did my thoughts.
So let us backtrack to the first half of VALENTINE ROAD. It quickly set up the players, the environment and the murder as expected. As the film played out I realized that there had to be more to it than just that. With no disrespect to the victim intended this seemed a cut and dry story. An effeminate teen was murdered because he had greatly embarrassed and challenged the manhood of another teen in front of friends. The disgusted teen took matters into his own hands and handled the problem right in the middle of class by shooting a couple of rounds. To help solidify the circumstances background information proves that the school inadequately handled the situations leading up to the killing and that dysfunctional families due to drug-addled parentage and troubled youths in foster homes added to the equation. It all added up to a disaster bound to happen. After all that was explained then the angle of tolerance and sexual identity came to the surface. We learned that it was a hate crime against a youth struggling with identity. I got it. The only problem was that this was all wrapped up in the first half of the documentary. What more was there?
There proved to be more to the story as this now opened up to be more than just a dime a dozen, though no less tragic, crime. The film wisely opened the issue up wider to explore the issues of being tried as an adult as opposed to a juvenile; the outcry of bullying in our schools and injustice. A thread of white supremacy even entered the picture and also the surprise of reversed bullying. The statement even arose, which hit like a slap to the face, that “the victim in this crime provoked the other teen into killing him.” Mull that over and I did.
All of a sudden there are two victims in this story and there are crusaders for both of them. At the time, I never followed the case to its outcome. Of course, this film does take us there. Was the perpetrator tried as a juvie or an adult and what was the verdict? I guess you will have to watch it and find out. If you are like me you might have remembered the news at the time but never knew the details. VALENTINE ROAD fills in those details in 89 minutes to good effect. Watch it.
In Conclusion: This is a good film to start the Fall Documentary Series with. It is also apropos as October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Just remember on watching this film that it is not cut and dry on who bullying whom and that is just one aspect that makes it interesting. Stick though to its end and you will also learn how the title, VALENTINE ROAD, shows relevance.
HBO air dates include: 10.10 at 11:00am; 10.13 at 12:15pm; 10.15 at 5:00pm and 10.19 at 10:30am. It can also be found on HBOGo.