Hot Docs: Valentine Road – Marta Cunningham

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This is another one of those cases where I wish I was a better writer, because nothing I can come up with could possibly cover the gamut of emotions and questions and reactions to this amazing documentary.  It’s something I feel everyone should see, and talk about, and then see again.  I started my journey along Valentine Road  rolling my eyes and biting my tongue, then abandonned all sense of remaining quiet by adding my exclamations of, “Oh my God!” and “What?!” to those of my fellow audience members.  By the end, I was confused about how i felt – how much I felt – and needed to remind myself that, not only were the views of those interviewed for the film real, but they were also quite current.  This wasn’t a story that took place long ago and far away.  It started in 2008 in Oxnard, California and, though the rest of the world may not ever realize it, the events that were set in motion that tragic day would grow to affect us all.

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In February 2008, a group of students played what they refered to as “the Valentine game”.  The idea was simple:  each person had to reveal the name of someone they thought was cute, and ask that person to be their Valentine.  One of those students was Lawrence “Larry” King, a 15-year-old biracial boy who was small for his age, and was fond of wearing makeup, high heels, and crocheting.  The object of Larry’s crush that year was 14-year-old Brandon McInerney, a tough, quiet kid who was beginning to show signs of becoming a budding white supremacist.  The day after Larry asked Brandon to be his Valentine – in front of several of Brandon’s friends, McInerney calmly shot Larry twice in the head during their computer class, killing the youngster and landing himself in prison.

The death of Larry King tore the town of Oxnard apart, but not for what would appear to be the obvious reasons.  As director Marta Cunningham painstakingly recreates the events leading up to King’s killing – as well as the years of investigation leading into Brandon’s trial – it becomes clear to the viewer that none of the things which unfolded in Oxnard are as cut and dried as they seemed at first.  In fact, Cunningham does such an incredible job at showing both sides of the story that the viewer is left feeling more confused than ever on some points.  Was justice served in this case?  Did Brandon deserve what he got?  Was Larry somehow responsible for his own murder, as the defence attorney’s in the case would have us believe?

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It’s been a long time since I’ve borne witness to a film which can elicit such a powerful reaction from its audience, and I feel both honoured and grateful to have been in the audience for this complex and divisive journey.  Cunningham’s careful hand guides us from Larry’s past, through the crime scene, into Brandon’s past, and continues through the long-drawn-out court proceedings.  Interviews with people from nearly every side of the issues – race, gender identity, an educational system that is unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with any of it, and the adults who were responsible for what happened to all of those kids – show a cross-section of America’s middle to lower class.  And it’s horrifying.

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How can a people who so closely resemble those of us in Canada be so completely different in the way they view the world around them?  Or, more frighteningly, are they that different?  Lax gun control laws aside, are the internal beliefs of the people of Oxnard that different from those of the people I pass on the street every day?  In similar circumstances, how many would view the case of Larry King’s murder through eyes full of empathy for Brandon?  How many would make excuses for murder, out of their own unspoken fear?  Like many others, I was ready to hate Brandon McInerney from the opening frames of the film.  By the end, however, while far from loving the boy, my feelings toward him had changed.  I spent my year of teacher’s college with middle school students, and all of the kids shown onscreen could easily have been any of the kids I got to know in my classes.  They could be any of us.

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By the film’s end, my anger was even stronger than it had been at the start, but it had become misdirected.  I wanted very much to have answers, to know where to place the blame, but the film does not seek to provide us with that kind of pat closure.  Instead, we are given as much information as possible, and then left to ask our own questions – turn the lens of blame toward ourselves and those around us, in the hopes that asking the hard questions will prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again.  The specific events of that day in 2008 affected the lives of those directly involved, and of those who bore witness.  But the ripple effect has and will continue to grow and touch us all.  Larry King was one of us – he was our son, our brother, our student, and our friend.  What people need to realize, however, if we are ever to stop this from happening again, is that Brandon McInerney was also one of us – our son, our brother, our student and our friend.  The actions of both are the responsibility of all.  Children are taught to hate.  They are taught to hide and deny who they are.  No one is born into darkness – we raise them into it.  And as the cycle continues, it’s up to us to stop it.

Valentine Road has one more screening at Hot Docs in Toronto:

Saturday May 4th at 8:00pm

I highly recommend that you see this one if ever you have the opportunity.  It’s worth every moment and then some.

Find out more information at the following links:

Official Site

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