Marta Cunningham’s new documentary Valentine Road, which premiered at Sundance in January, takes on a 2008 school shooting in the small town of Oxnard, California. The victim, Lawrence “Larry” King, is an openly transgendered, mixed race, 15-year-old boy who had been in and out of foster care and group homes most of his life. The 14-year-old perpetrator, Brandon McInerney, also endured a traumatic childhood and had joined a neo-Nazi gang just prior to the attack. He’s currently serving a 21-year prison sentence.
The film hinges on intimate interviews conducted by Cunningham. She respects her subjects, and they respond by opening up about their emotions and memories with heart-wrenching detail. Cunningham’s greatest strength lies in her ability to present both victim and perpetrator as sympathetic children. Like any real tragedy, Larry’s murder and the events around it are rife with injustice, prejudice, fear, loneliness, misunderstandings and missed prevention opportunities.
There’s little disagreement as to the day’s events. Multiple students witnessed Brandon fatally shoot Larry at close range in the school’s computer lab. He was apprehended by police near the school shortly thereafter. But Cunningham has her work cut out for her as she explores the causes, motivations, mistakes, and, most significantly, the blame surrounding this horrific crime.
Many voices emerge: the students who loved Larry, the teacher who encouraged him to embrace his transsexual identity, the attorneys emotionally and financially invested in the movement to stop minors from being tried as adults, Brandon’s broken family members and his devoted girlfriend, school administrators who botched any opportunities for healing or change, and, most damningly, the Christian members of the community who believed that Larry was “asking for it.”
The film is full of such comments. One of the teachers at Oxnard’s E.O. Green Junior High School says that Larry was inviting mistreatment when he was open about his sexuality and calmly surmises that he is probably “in hell” now. A handful of other teachers pronounce similar judgments on the victim and those who’d attempted to support him. Of course, Larry wouldn’t have been served well if the adults around him had failed to warn him that he might encounter violence in the world, but it’s unnerving to hear average adult Americans—teachers, parents, community members—imply that a young teenager deserved his own murder.
Why was Larry’s life any less sacred than the unborn whose lives many Christians fight to protect? It seems that the Christians interviewed in Valentine Road deem Larry’s life less valuable—and his death at least explainable—because he identified as transgender and was open about it. But no matter what one’s views on sexuality are, Larry was a human being. All humans are valuable, especially for those who believe that all humans are created in God’s image. That belief is fundamental to the conviction that all human life is inherently worth protecting.
Cunningham is to be commended for piecing together a chilling and complex story that required years of her attention as a filmmaker, and especially for her ability to remain calm while talking to people who almost certainly offended her own liberal convictions. Still, I wonder why more Christian filmmakers aren’t drawn to these issues. I imagine it is because a director must feel a deep sympathy for the subject with such a film, and perhaps some or even many Christians lack that depth of sympathy when it comes to people who identify as anything other than heterosexual.
Christians are called to protect those that are weak, ostracized, alien or victimized. I think of the many social outcasts who found refuge and belonging in the presence of Christ, and I wonder who those people are today. Who are the “tax collectors and prostitutes” of the contemporary world? I imagine they would be anyone society has written off, anyone we would generally think of as worthless or beyond hope. I’m not assuming a particular conclusion about the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality, but simply pointing out that violation of the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” should be at least as upsetting to Christians as seemingly wrong sexual identity choices. Whether or not we think of homosexuality as acceptable, we should feel sympathy toward those among us facing bigotry or threats on their lives.
This is compounded by the fact that our culture generally lacks the courage to take a stand on anything. On the other end of the spectrum from the damning conservative Christian is the open-minded liberal who endeavors to treat all voices and opinions as equal. Valentine Road does exactly that, showing us how both Larry and Brandon were victims of childhood abuse, how the adults around them failed to protect them, how unloved and isolated they had been. Larry is portrayed as having been a free spirit, a person who had come to terms with who he was and was openly exploring what that would mean for him in the world. Brandon is a tortured and confused youth, loved by his devoted girlfriend but scarred by a traumatic childhood and misled by neo-Nazi gang members, who is being tried as an adult for a crime he committed right after his 14th birthday.
While it’s evident that both the crime and the response to the crime were a mess, Cunningham fails to bring Valentine Road to an appropriate conclusion. Instead she leaves the audience in artful ambiguity. Is it right or wrong to try a child for murder? Were the adults in Larry’s life protecting him sufficiently from the discrimination he would face? Why had no one noticed Brandon’s burgeoning neo-Nazi fascination and realized violence was brewing? Cunningham fails to take on these big questions. She falls into the postmodern trap of raising questions and then standing back with an all-knowing look and declaring “but there are no right answers.”
This is not to say a film can’t revel in telling ambiguities. But I think there is a right answer to whether or not a minor should be tried as an adult. The answer is no. There is also a right way to honor young Lawrence King’s memory. While candlelight vigils may comfort his friends, they do not address the source of the problem. Teachers and parents in small-town America need to face the hatred that they have tolerated for too long and take some adult measures to prevent emotionally disturbed children from walking around with guns.