In the days after a school shooting, newspapers are full of details: the number of bodies and rounds of ammunition, the make of the gun. The obituaries that follow are full of them too — the dead student's favorite color, their unfulfilled ambitions, their last words. It doesn't take long, though, before the conversation invariably shifts to a debate over national policy, before the detailed stories disappear altogether.
Valentine Road, which premiered Saturday at Sundance, details what happens to the students who survive, to the teacher, to the shooter and to their families.
"The news machine chews on the story, digests it, and moves on to another story, but the people who lived it don't," says Valentine Road producer Eddie Schmidt. (Schmidt is in a unique position to comment — he was finishing post-production on the film when the Sandy Hook shooting took place in his hometown of Newtown, Connecticut.)
Valentine Road director Marta Cunningham launched the project after reading a Newsweek story about the shooting death of 15-year-old Lawrence King at the hands of classmate Brandon McInerney in Oxnard, California. It was one example of media coverage that Cunningham felt blamed King for his own death.
"I read [the Newsweek article] three times and cried after it each time because I was so upset with the homophobic nature of the article and the one-dimensional aspect of Larry," Cunningham says. (The author of the article, Ramin Setoodeh, who is openly gay, says, "I strongly disagree that our coverage was homophobic, and I think it's irresponsible to call it homophobic." He has not yet seen the film.)
The Newsweek piece described King as "a troubled child who flaunted his sexuality and wielded it like a weapon." The team that represented McInerney used a similar defense in court, claiming he was driven to kill King by King's bullying.
King, a boy who wore makeup and high heels and asked classmates and teachers to call him by female names, told his friends that he thought McInerney was cute. When his friends dared him to ask McInerney to be his valentine, King did, in front of all of McInerney's friends. The next day McInerney brought a handgun to school and shot King twice in the back of the head in computer class — during a lesson, the film notes, on "tolerance."
"I just read the story and felt like, how do I not know this? How does not everyone know about this story?" Cunningham says. "Shot in a classroom in eighth grade for being himself, by a child who has white supremacist tendencies — excuse me? How could you not do a story about it? I was so angry."
"I wanted to know every single thread of that story. Every single thread of it," he continues.
For four years, Cunningham drove from Los Angeles to Oxnard to sit in on the hearings and later the trial, often beside McInerney's mother, Kendra.
"Sitting in the room with Kendra as she sobbed every day — and I would give her Kleenex because invariably she'd run out of them because that's how hard she would be crying," Cunningham says. "She's a mother, I'm a mother, I started relating to her as that. She believed in me wanting to tell Brandon's story and their story from a truthful perspective and with empathy."
Cunningham was a persistent presence in the courtroom, and her dedication paid off in the form of incredible access to all the parties touched by the tragedy. The film features interviews with the prosecution, the defense, members of the jury, McInerney's family and his girlfriend, the teacher in the classroom that day, and King's friends, guardians, and former teachers.
None of them, unsurprisingly, were left untouched. King's friends and guardians and McInerney's family were equally destroyed by the shooting. The teacher who was in the room at the time of the shooting lost her job, and she has been hospitalized several times for depression.
The film heroically manages to present a sympathetic portrait of McInerney, in spite of the swastikas scrawled in his notebooks, his admission in court that he believes whites to be intellectually superior to other races, and the accounts of the racial epithets he used to address fellow students. (In addition to being transgender, King, like Cunningham, was half black.) Like King, McInerney grew up in an abusive household. McInerney's father, an alcoholic and drug user, died during the trial.
The film is less forgiving in its portrayal of E.O. Green School, some of whose administrators and teachers come across as incompetent and bigoted. After the shooting, students were put in a classroom where the film Jaws was played to distract them from the grisly violence they'd just witnessed. Classes resumed the same day. They were offered no counseling. Students continued to attend classes in the computer lab where they watched their friend die.
In an interview, one teacher suggests she believes King has gone to hell because he was transgender and expresses disgust at an LGBT march held in Oxnard after the shooting. Administrators allowed students to plant a tree in King's honor on school property but refuse to let them add a dedication plaque bearing his name.
In the end, though, Valentine Road is not an indictment of the shooter, or the school, or the media, or the members of the jury alone — it's a devastating critique of a moment in our history characterized by intolerance for difference and a seemingly endless indulgence of violence.