Valentine Road is a documentary about the death of Larry King, a fifteen-year-old boy who liked to dress up in make-up and high heel shoes and go to school. He was shot in the back of the head by Brandon McInerny, a fourteen-year-old peer, because of that, and also because Larry told him he wanted Brandon to be his Valentine. This happened in 2008 in Oxnard, California. I didn't remember this incident at all, but in Marta Cunningham's film she shows us the media taking on the issue (Ellen DeGeneres gives a wonderful plea on her show, among others), but that isn't really the point for Cunningham. She's interested in showing us how these events are a lot more complicated than speeches on talk-shows can allow, more complicated than most people can even accept inside their own minds.
Watching this documentary I felt mystified a number of times by the overarching meanness and judgment in people's faces as they spoke about Larry and how he somehow caused his own death by his "eccentric behaviors," and I was also taken aback by the sweetness and sorrow in the facial expressions of the murderer and his immediate family. It's a dizzying feeling, this movie, because while her heart of course is with Larry and what was done to him, Cunningham does not shy away from looking into the heart of darkness that helped to create the situation. That darkness is located in many places within the context of the film, including school hall-ways, white-trash front-yards, middle-class dining rooms, foster-care facilities, and eventually a courtroom. The darkness, in fact, is the point here. It is a darkness so dark that it creates a sort of confusion that's masked as compassion in many people's hearts.
Larry's desire for Brandon is constituted as a malfunction of a grievous sort by many of the teachers who used to teach Larry (one of the bitchiest ones in the documentary cites the fact that Larry was on an IEP and "behavior program" as evidence for his need for "correction" and "conversion"), and many others, including an evil older teacher stirring her iced-tea with a knife in her plush crucifix-decorated split-level, state that if Larry had been told how to act, and punished for acting out in high-heels, the situation, the murder, would not have taken place. It's scary to think that these women (all of Larry's teachers happened to be women) and others lack the imagination and the moral apparatus to understand how Larry's love for a boy, and his happiness in both dressing like a girl and expressing that love, should not damn him to being shot in the head. It's pretty easy math, even when it's overtly sentimentalized. But something about Larry brings out the beast in people, and not just Brandon, but a whole society.
This society includes the jurors in Brandon's trial, which eventually ended up with a hung jury. In Valentine Road we are privy to the after-trial thoughts of three ladies who were part of that hung jury. These woman are heavily made-up, talking about how astonished they are at the low price of Cabernet at Trader Joe's as they swill it at a suburban dining table laid out with pastries and cheese and crackers. An off-kilter chumminess has enveloped these three in a sort of tribal bitchiness as they talk about how Brandon really had no choice because of Larry's sexual harassment, how no adult stepped in to ensure that Larry would stop breaking the rules... Their collective sympathies for Brandon, the killer, are breathtakingly nonchalant, as if they are discussing someone playing hooky. It is both creepy and awe-inspiring, their lack of any kindness toward Larry. They only see him as a thorn in Brandon's side, an obstacle to his future now.
Larry was a foster-kid. Larry had no connection to the world outside of a few friends at school, and the one teacher in the film who felt compassion for him and who was actually with him in the computer lab when he was killed. (She was summarily fired from her job because she gave Larry her daughter's prom dress to wear.) Larry was an anomaly beyond abnormal to the majority of the people who were charged with educating him His mere presence, however, fucked with their need to correct, control, convert.
Mary Gaitskill is one of my favorite writers, and in September she wrote a nasty takedown review of Gone Girl, a popular novel that's gotten a lot of attention. In the review, Gaitskill talks about some of the same issues Cunningham gets at in Valentine Road.
"So why is Gone Girl scary rather than kooky? Primarily the characters’ apparently everyday behavior—their motivations and how they view one another. Amy and Nick [Gone Girl's main characters) do not resemble actual people so much as grotesquely smiling masks driven by forces of extreme artifice, and it’s exactly that extreme artificial quality that’s frightening to the point of sickening. What I mean by “artifice” is social language, styles, and manners, a public way of being that is by necessity coded, fixed, and hard, and which has become even more so through the emergence of the virtual world. In physical life, the hardness and (frequent) deceptiveness of such language is offset by the deep, doggishly honest presence of the body; in the virtual world, such animal presence is either absent or faked. Gone Girl doesn’t compare to other books so much as it evokes flipping through TV shows (including the news) and glimpsing face after chirping face, all with only slight variations on the same manner of speech and “smart,” high-speed delivery common to Facebook, texting, and tweeting; that is to say, the book evokes (impressively, one might argue) a hyperartificial, hive-minded way of relating, combined with what has become a cultural ideal of relentless feminine charm tied to power and control."
The teachers and jurors in Valentine Road who use Larry as a cautionary tale to any other freaks out there thinking they have a right to dress weird and tell people they love them are hive-minded and hard-faced, diligent in obeying some need to keep things static and coded and fixed and artificial. That's what makes them "scary rather than kooky," and gives Valentine Road a moral imperative and its deep beauty. In the middle of the movie, while they are chattering about "behaviors" and "sexual harassment," Cunningham cuts quietly to a picture from Larry's autopsy.
She shows us the two bullet-holes in the back of his head.