Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Hot Docs 2013 Film Review - Valentine Road

Oxnard California is a town that in the past was only really known to its residents. It was a sign on the highway on the way to Los Angeles that might catch a motorist's eye on the trip into the big city.  The events of February 12th 2008 brought the town to national attention and changed the lives of many community members forever.

Director Martha Cunningham crafts a riveting film starting with eyewitness accounts from the grade 7 and 8 students that were in the computer class on that fateful day. The students recount arriving at school that morning remembering that it was a typical day. Then many heard a pop which they thought may have been a balloon only to realize that one of their classmates Lawrence Larry King a 15 year old LGBT student had been shot then the shooter fellow classmate Brandon McInerney dropped the weapon and fled the classroom. Next we move to the police drawings of the classroom showing where each student was seated at the time of the shooting with King and McInerney's names printed in bold followed by the crime scene pictures of the room itself in raw detail.

What develops after the shooting is an extremely polarizing case.  The first aspect was how would the prosecutors handle the case? California had a new law on the books proposition 21. The law was aimed at gang members. The gangs had figured out long ago that as long as their violent actions were carried out by members14 years of age or younger they would be tried as a juvenile, which meant shorter and easier sentences.  Prop 21 gave the courts the option to try 14 year olds as adults for murder. The next question was whether or not this was a momentary loss of reason by a kid that felt he had no other option to ward off unwanted advances from a classmate or a well thought out pre-meditated hate crime. The State and law enforcement believed that this was a hate crime and McInerney should be tried as an adult and entered charges to that effect.

Cunningham uses a lot of closed circuit video from the school, police interrogation and prison cameras as part of the movie. The documentary also points to the slow speed of justice in California, as it is 3 years of delays and appeals until the case finally goes to trial. Cunningham also takes every opportunity to highlight the beachfront nature of Oxnard. She uses shots of the beach, sand and surf in many transition shots along with one spectacular frame of a California sunset.

Along with the eyewitness accounts of the students in the class the presentation includes several first person accounts from friends and family on both sides. Since Larry was adopted most of his story is told by classmates, a good friend from his group home and the teacher from the class in which the event occurred. Brandon's girlfriend, half brother and mother tell his story.

Despite appearing to be polar opposites the two boys had a lot in common. Friends on both sides recounted evidence of physical abuse on both boys. Larry was adopted had a legal guardian and had lived in a group home.  Brandon was living with his grandfather, as his father was very violent while his mother went in and out of rehab with her drug problems.

The last aspect of this film that is a recurring theme in these type of cases is the tactic of putting the victim on trial. As the court case progresses the comments and actions of grown adults will leave the audiences speechless and shaking their heads.

Valentine Road is a highly charged presentation that will affect audiences emotionally. It's a film that I can highly recommend and once viewed will compel audience members to start a conversation with your friends, family and community as a whole.

**** out of 4.

Valentine Road | Marta Cunningham | U.S.A | 87 Minutes.

Hot Docs 2013 Film Festival.

Tags: Murder, Hate Crime, Jury Trial, LGBT Youth, California Laws, School Shooting, Beach Community.

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