Perhaps the best and worst thing about young teenagers is that they’re capable of what George W. Bush fans used to call “great moral clarity.” In HBO’s sure-to-make-you-bawl documentary Valentine Road, Aliyah, a student at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, California, breaks down the differences between gayness and transsexuality with a certainty and sensitivity that too few adults possess—it’s her conviction that the distinctions are of vital importance.
Another kid, explaining what it’s like to be gay in a small town, spills a truth most grown-ups would be too polite to: “It’s basically ignorance. That is the plague of our school.” When kids like these tape over their mouths for the annual Day of Silence protest against schools’ treatment of LGBT students, they do so with the purest moral authority—young folks who know they’re fighting to create a world better than the one adults have given them.
But the brutal flip side of that certainty inspired 14-year-old Brandon McInerney to shoot and kill his classmate Lawrence King in a Green computer lab. King, you may recall from news reports, had taken to wearing high heels with his school uniform and had just announced that he—she, we might say, if King had lived long enough to fully articulate a gender identity—now wanted to be called “Latisha.”
Lawrence—Larry—was already the school’s pariah, its go-to insult. In the film, another student reports that people would say things like, “Oh, dude, you’re so gay you’re going to date Larry when you grow up.” The week of the shooting, King had asked McInerney to be his valentine—in front of McInerney’s friends on the basketball court. Like King, McInerney had suffered a dumb and brutal childhood, one with too little love and too much neglect, and, like King, he sought to prove to the world who he was via the outward expression of the confusion inside him. McInerney, like so many young men, figured the only thing he had to offer was violence. He shot King, went to jail, went to trial, and somehow, through it all, never lost his girlfriend—or the support of a community that previously didn’t give two shits about a poor boy like him.
There are many lifetimes’ worth of tragedies to go around in Marta Cunningham’s moving, excellent film, a doc that never flinches from heartbreak—we see McInerney’s parents in full-on breakdown on police department surveillance footage not long after the arrest—or human complexity. “Every single adult just fucked up at every step of the way, and that’s what’s so frustrating to me,” says defense attorney Robyn Bramson. At first, the case seems cut-and-dry: There were many witnesses, and McInerney never denied that he had planned the murder in advance. But the law—like teenagers or California voters—often suffers from that same damnable moral certainty that urged McInerney to kill. California’s Proposition 21, passed in 2000, demands that anyone 14 or older charged with murder be tried as an adult, so McInerney found himself facing life without parole rather than some more thoughtful or hopeful rehabilitation. A prosecutor shows us footage of McInerney, in juvenile detention, attacking other kids for reasons nobody bothers to guess at. It’s to the great credit of Cunningham’s film that, even as viewers weep for King, they will most likely fear for McInerney, too.
His case is wrenching: An angry, rudderless kid, sketching Nazi imagery in his schoolbooks, hanging with white supremacists because the adults around him—meth-addict mother and often violent father—have done so little to nurture any talents or faculties within him that all he could find to cling to that might make him seem to matter was whiteness itself. But he’s grown into something of a charmer, or at least that’s the claim of the girlfriend who says she still hopes to marry him—and who says, a little scornfully, right into the camera, “When Brandon told me Larry came to school in high heels, I was like, ‘Why?’”
She seems to presume that anyone watching would agree: “Yeah, that is weird. Yuck.” The citizens of Oxnard often say unsettling things in Valentine Road. A teacher speaks darkly of the LGBT demonstrators that marched past the school not long after the shooting—“I have questions,” she says, implying some sort of conspiracy. Others teachers complain that another California law prevented them from doing what they believe they should have done: send King home to change so that he didn’t stand out so much.
“I’m quite sure Larry wouldn’t be dead if he had been my student that year,” one says grandly. With childish pique, McInerney’s girlfriend complains of an injustice: Straight students often got in trouble for breaking wardrobe, so why is it fair that King got to wear high heels? Many of these instructors seem angry at King, still, both because they couldn’t stop him from dressing out—but also because he made them uncomfortable. A more sympathetic instructor, who gave King her daughter’s prom dress, is now working at Starbucks.
Most upsetting of all are the jurors we meet who helped make McInerney’s case a mistrial. The defense team, fighting to keep a kid from spending the rest of his life in jail, decided to present King as the bully, an outré queen flouting local norms and humiliating McInerney until McInerney could take no more. “[Brandon] was solving a problem,” one juror says, to sympathetic nods from her cohort. It’s rare, even in good documentaries, to see a moment as nakedly human as that. This is a movie that crowds everything else from your brain, and scenes like that one replayed in my mind for days.
We also hear sympathy for King, of course. LGBT kids at the school praise his smile, his laughter, his courage for being out in a place like Oxnard. And TV clips from the other Larry King and that likable Ellen DeGeneres remind us that things are (too slowly) getting better for King’s peers. I hope the parents in places like Oxnard watched those shows or this film, which presents them not as villains or monsters but as somewhat small-minded folks who can find it in themselves to feel a twinge of sympathy for a kid like King but great empathy for one like McInerney, one who hated the same thing they do: having to share this life with people certain of different truths.
One Other Weird Thing: This doc was co-produced by Bunim/Murray Productions, perhaps as bit of Purell for the soul after having so soiled themselves with all those seasons of the Real World/Road Rules Challenge.