Exceptionally well made, but sure to infuriate you as well…
I have always thought that great documentaries achieve greatness because they manage to strike a strong emotional reaction in the viewer. A film that covers a subject well but which doesn’t excite the viewer, in my opinion, cannot be a great documentary. Valentine Road is a great documentary, as it’s practically impossible to watch the film without having exceptionally strong feelings welling up inside as you watch. Additionally, the filmmaker’s style is extremely effective and manages to make the most of describing this horrible tragedy and its aftermath. And, because it is so emotional and so effective, you might just want to watch it with a box of Kleenex nearby.
The film is about an awful murder that occurred a few years ago in Oxnard, California. In front of his entire 8th grade class, Brandon McInerney pulled out a gun and shot his classmate, Larry. This was no accident–Brandon meant to do this, as he then put the gun up to the other kid’s head and pulled the trigger again…killing the boy. None of this is disputed–Brandon killed the other kid and intended to.
This initial portion of the film brought me close to tears many times. It’s tragic…and pointless. You cannot help but feel the pain of the kids who were forced to watch their classmate die–and the victim seemed like a nice kid. However, here is where the film starts to get uncomfortable–very uncomfortable. Many folks now begin to talk in front of the camera about many issues that seriously annoyed me. First, Brandon has many supporters who feel that his being tried as an adult is wrong and want him kept in the juvenile justice system (where they can only keep him until he comes of age). This subject is controversial and is bound to cause a lot of strong feelings in the viewer to erupt. Second, lots of folks (particularly teachers and jurors from the first trial) come up with reasons to blame Larry for being murdered. After all, some reasoned, Larry sure acted gay and had made advances on Brandon…and so, in a way, it’s not Brandon’s fault that he killed Larry. Others argued that Brandon grew up in a violent home–so his behavior is understandable.
An awful lot of folks seemed really, really invested in coming up with these and other reasons that Brandon wasn’t necessarily at fault … or at least to mitigate his guilt.
Valentine Road is a great bit of social commentary and it illustrates the hidden divide within our communities. It will cause you to have many strong reactions and question the justice system, the school, the community and much more. But the best part of this is that the film’s tone remains rather neutral. There is no narration and the camera just lets people talk and say what’s on their mind–and it’s surprising that folks are so candid about what they think deep within. I am sure you’ll think some of these folks are total idiots! I love documentaries like this because they do not spoon-feed you and allow you to think for yourself–and decide who the idiots are! And, given its emotional impact and message, it’s a film to see. See this documentary from HBO Films for yourself and see what you make of the case. And, wow…there’s a lot to think about with this one!
By the way, my own feelings about this case are very strong–and some of this is probably because I was a teacher who also taught 8th grade (among others). This could have happened in one of my classrooms as I knew kids a lot like Brandon as well as Larry. It’s sobering to think about that…
Review by Lead Entertainment Writer & Film Critic, Martin Hafer