Marta Cunningham’s documentary “Valentine Road” is a very intriguing film that touches upon several issues: gun control, child abuse, the media, our juvenile court system and, perhaps most notably, intolerance. Yet for as intriguing as the film and its subject matter are, “Valentine Road” suffers from, well, bad filmmaking which makes the whole affair kind of succeed in spite of itself. While still an interesting conversation starter, this is a topic that needs more scrutiny and I remain unclear as to what “Valentine Road” is trying to say.
“Valentine Road” is the story of Brandon McInerney, an 8th grader at a middle school in Oxnard, CA who, in 2008, shot his classmate Larry King in the back of the head during class. That storyline on its own is awful and devastating, but there’s more. McInerney evidently shot King because he was an “out” homosexual and extremely flamboyant kid who embarrassed McInerney by asking him to be his valentine in front of several peers. That compounds the issue, adds to the story and shows it to be a hate crime or, at the very least, an inkling into the intolerance many people feel towards those “different” from them. However the plot thickens again as we discover McInerney and King were both victims of severe abuse, which is no excuse for McInerney to shoot King or for King to “flaunt” his sexuality at classmates, it’s also an upsetting thing and adds to the plot of the already plot-dense film.
As “Valentine Road” unspools, more and more twisted storylines leak out and, to her credit, Cunningham never tries to play these storylines up to manipulate an audience or get them to feel one way or the other. Yet her lack of doing so also left me feeling like the story lacked impact and had no easy answers. I felt like the filmmaker knew all the cards in the deck (which she obviously did) and rather sloppily reveals them as the film goes on but to no real effect.
Clearly there’s no way not to feel manipulated by these events as they unfold and the constant flip-flopping of empathy towards the people involved makes for an almost meaningless viewing experience. In short, I blamed everyone involved and that’s the wrong feeling to have for such a traumatic event. Or is it? While to the films credit I’ve spent much time thinking about this stance in the days that have passed, I also wish there was a point to be had in the film. Or at least one I could agree or disagree with.
“Valentine Road” is an intriguing story told shabbily. Cunningham’s choice to throw everything against the wall to see what sticks is noble in that it’s clear she wants to show both sides of the story. But a more experienced filmmaker would find a way to lead a viewer down the path rather than stick them in a roller coaster with no one at the controls.
Where the film succeeds is that it will strike up conversation and I also found myself able to look critically at young Larry King, a sweet boy who didn’t deserve to die but also (in my opinion) took his flamboyance too far. Rarely are victims shown as anything but pure victims and I appreciated that angle (and to be clear, he was definitely the victim and in no way deserved to be shot and killed). And almost everyone in the film deserves blame as well as forgiveness but the film merely shows what they did to “contribute” to this horrible event and never really gives the audience enough to work with in terms of blame or forgiveness.