Valentine Road recounts the true life story of how a young, openly gay boy (or transgender even, without trying to define his gender for him) who was brutally murdered via two, point-blank, gunshots to the back of the head in the middle of class, by a boy who he’d asked to be his valentine. It’s not just a film about this tragic event, but also one about failure.
The failure in question is multifaceted; it’s a failure of the school system, of the justice system, of tolerance, of the fundamentals of our society (or at least, of America’s). Filmmaker Marta Cunningham explores these bigger issues through the isolated case of Brandon McInerney’s murder of Larry King.
The film follows several of Larry’s friends and teachers as well as members of Brandon’s family. We get both sides of the story laid out in front of us in a very matter-of-fact way. Larry’s classmates and supporting teachers (the only outspokenly supportive teacher, the one that was in the room on the day, was fired and now works for Starbucks) speak fondly of the sweet boy, painting a portrait (which the film also does through animated interludes) of a rather brave person in an intolerant place. The film draws parallels between Larry and Brandon, both coming from broken homes and receiving difficult upbringings.
Those in support of Brandon indulge in absolutely shocking victim blaming, with an echo chamber of jury members, post-trial, talking about the murder in a manner that resembles the discourse on rape (he was asking for it, he dressed that way etc.). It doesn’t stop there as several of them, as well as Brandon’s lawyers, start a “Save Brandon” campaign. For a kid who murdered another child in cold blood. It’s simply unbelievable. And it doesn’t even stop there, as we also hear a professional forensic psychologist say, out loud and in complete confidence, that Brandon had a problem and that he solved it, while simultaneously brushing off the white supremacist imagery Brandon was drawing (luckily, the film also follows a hate crime investigator who looks into these matters).
The instances of absurdity stretch beyond that as we also hear a girl from the school recall how the kids in the computer lab were shepherded into a classroom and shown Jaws as the school, which looks more like some sort of prison with its chain-link fences, was placed on lockdown after the murder. These moments of chilling lack of empathy and understanding stay with you long after the film ends.
Cunningham gets complete access to the case, enabling her to show us crime scene photographs, interrogation videos and emergency call recordings. She presents it all very matter-of-factly. We then see the case slush around the legal system for years until the case finally goes to court, the result ultimately being rather unsatisfying, especially when we see Brandon graduate in prison while his victim lies six feet under.
The filmmakers voice remains silent throughout, leaving people to either mourn or dig their own holes, filled with bigotry and hate. It’s a silence that speaks louder than most words, because you don’t need to speak against these people, they do it themselves. It’s just a shame that they neither listen nor realize the severity of the things they’re saying.
Final Verdict: Difficult but important, Valentine Road is a film that will make you sad and angry in equal measure. It will bring you to tears, or at the very least to the brink of them. The system is broken and empathy seems the only way to battle the endemic hatred that exists on the other side.