For the past few months, I’ve been seeing previews for a film called Unfriended. Barring astronomically good reviews, I don’t expect to see it. It looks like a cheap and lazy horror film with a cheap and lazy gimmick made in imitation of the cheap and lazy “found footage” genre that just needs to go away already.
That said, the film’s existence is a wonderful sign of something positive. The issue of online harassment is only getting more relevant, and it’s great that we’re starting to take online and offline bullying more seriously. This is a discussion we very badly need to have, especially in a way that gets teens and young adults involved.
So here’s A Girl Like Her, which claims to be “based on a million true stories.” Sappy (but nonetheless true) loglines aside, this is still a movie about high school bullying and reviews so far have been scarce but positive. The film’s subject was interesting enough, but I found the movie’s obscure nature very compelling. Only 19 reviews have been logged on Rotten Tomatoes, and this is probably the first movie I’ve ever reviewed so far that didn’t have a Wikipedia page. Just what did I stumble onto here?
Well, to start with, it’s a mockumentary with some found footage elements. It’s like a fucking plague, I’m telling you.
Our stage is set in the fictional (so far as I can tell) South Brookdale High School. This school is being made into the subject of a documentary, since it was recently selected as one of the best public high schools in the country. Selected by whom? Best at what? Doesn’t matter. Because as soon as the filmmaking crew touches down, a student tries to commit suicide and they’re suddenly making a very different documentary.
Now we have a movie about two teenage girls, both sophomores at SBHS. One of them is naturally Jessica Burns (Lexi Ainsworth), the girl who just tried to kill herself. And we get to watch the suicide attempt in the film’s opening minutes, shot in POV. Good times.
Believe it or not, the movie does have an in-story reason for shooting the suicide attempt in POV. You see, after several months of bullying and harassment, Jessica’s best friend (Brian, played by Jimmy Bennet) rigs up a hidden camera disguised as a dragonfly pin. Thus Jessica records her everyday life at school and all the abusive crap she puts up with on a daily basis. She’d been doing this for six months before swallowing a whole bottle of pills, and I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that all that footage eventually winds up in the hands of our documentary crew.
Then we have our other subject, Avery Keller (Hunter King), the bully who made Jess’ life a living hell. She’s apparently a very popular and successful kid who doesn’t seem to be on bad terms with anyone except Jessica. And by all appearances, her home life is nothing out of the ordinary and her family seems to be getting along fine.
So why would such an apparently well-adjusted kid say and do such awful things that it would drive another student to suicide? Well, there’s the central question of the film.
(Side note: This stands in contrast to Bully, an otherwise excellent documentary that focused almost exclusively on the victims of bullying without giving much thought as to why kids bully each other or what can be done about it.)
Of course, the movie takes a few minutes here and there to talk with students and faculty on the subject of bullying. We get to see a few PTA meetings as well. Nobody says that bullying is okay, obviously, but nobody seems clear on what to do about it. And given that a student there is now in a coma, quite possibly on her deathbed, finding something to do about bullying has suddenly become a top priority. Even so, nobody can seem to agree on whether the root of the problem rests with the teachers, the parents, or the students. It certainly doesn’t help that students feel immense social pressure against ratting each other out.
Then we have the matter of Jessica. Through her button camera, the film treats us to a horribly brutal montage of Jess getting pushed, beaten, tossed around, threatened, insulted, and put through all manner of other physical and verbal abuses. Just going through all of that is bad enough for her. Going through it again while describing it to a parent or some other authority figure would be soul-crushingly painful. And that goes double for video footage. Even if the evidence against Avery is that much more damning, and even if it’s Jessica behind the camera, that may still be the most humiliating footage of her that will ever be produced. It’s completely understandable how she’d think twice about showing it to anyone.
And what of Avery? Well, as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Avery suffers from a terrible lack of perspective. She frequently refers to herself as a “normal” teenager, like there’s any kind of definition for what a “normal” teenager is. She has no appreciation for her place at the top of the social food chain, and she doesn’t realize how powerful she is. Which is understandable. And that’s another problem.
It’s easy for teenagers to think that they don’t have any kind of influence over anything. They can’t vote, they can’t drink (legally), and they probably can’t drive anywhere without permission if they can even drive at all. It’s so easy to think that you don’t have any power, no one cares what you think, and your life doesn’t matter until you turn 18. But that’s not necessarily true. For one thing, there are plenty of full-grown adults who continue to feel that way long after they turn 18. For another, teenagers do in fact hold incredible power over each other.
When it comes to relations between peers, opinions matter immensely. Therefore, the words to express those opinions are tremendously important. This is especially crucial to remember in the Internet Age, when any hot-tempered words could be put down in stone forever, even if they were only said in the heat of a very brief moment.
The movie naturally shows us all the mental gymnastics that Avery and her family put themselves through to try and brush off the accusations of bullying. We have the old familiar excuses, such as blaming the victim (“She’s the one who tried to commit suicide! I didn’t tell her to do that!”), the ad populum fallacy (“Why is this a big deal when it’s going on in high schools all across the country?!”), and of course, saying that it was all just a misunderstanding (“So what if I was joking around and she got all offended? Like it’s my fault she can’t take a joke?!”).
This is all cliched stuff, sure, but sometimes things become cliches because they’re true. There’s a reason why we keep hearing these excuses over and over again, and there’s a reason why we keep seeing people get bullied like this. And I’m not even talking about movies, I’m talking about newspapers. I’m talking about message boards and social media posts. You know as well as I do that this is all stuff that’s happening at this very moment, on and off the web.
The movie was very clearly made as an independent production, and that does it so many favors. Because the cast is populated entirely of supremely talented unknown actors, everything is made to feel so much more authentic. Whether these characters are grieving for a girl stuck in a coma or coming face to face with their own personal sins and flaws, pretty much every single actor is faced with the task of tearing their heart out for the camera. And there is absolutely no hint of a Hollywood shine to be seen.
That lack of artifice really hammers home the point that someone, somewhere, is going through all of this right now. This is what it feels like when a teenager even attempts suicide. This is what it feels like when one student bullies another, even if they don’t realize there’s any bullying going on.
Unfortunately, when so much of this movie hinges on such uncompromising authenticity and sincerity, even the slightest contrivance is going to stick out further than the Washington Monument. A great example is the best friend who just happens to be a huge camera geek, which is one of many paper-thin story devices that come standard with the “found footage” style. There’s also the matter of that tiny button camera with a limitless battery that somehow uploads all of its footage to a home computer with a continuous wireless connection, and it was made by a teenager. And of course we also have the various camera angles and placements that really shouldn’t be possible.
But I’m pretty sure it’s Avery’s family that will make or break this film for any given audience. Avery’s mother (Cassie Keller, played by Christy Engle) is a preening motormouth, her father (David Keller, played by Jon W. Martin) is a near-mute lump of a man who can’t seem to find a job after getting laid off, and her brother (Josh Keller, played by Gino Borri) is a creepy freeloader who lives at home and doesn’t seem to know much of anything except videogames. Oh, and we mustn’t forget Avery herself, who is quite often portrayed as your typical vapid Mean Girl type.
I have no excuses to offer for David and Josh. I get that the recession is bad and I’m sure there are plenty of unemployed and undereducated people like them out there, but making them so comically oafish was a bad move. However, it’s possible that Avery and Christy are merely acting like stereotypes because they’re under the impression that this is how people should act. Granted, the movie never thinks to raise this point, but it’s entirely possible that these two women act this way publicly because of all the self-imposed pressure to look and act like all those successful women they see on reality TV. At least in the case of Avery, we can clearly see that it’s an act and there’s something else going on under the surface.
As for Avery’s parents, of course the film had to raise the question of whether there’s any trouble with her home life. And yet, as cliched as her parents are, the film’s presentation of Avery’s home life still works because they don’t really do anything wrong. Her father has a hands-off approach toward parenting, staying just close enough to Avery that he’s ready to intervene on her behalf when necessary. Her mother is very outspoken about her children, extremely proud of their accomplishments, very ambitious in her desires for their happiness, and ear-splittingly aggressive in their defense. When two such different personalities are in a room together, of course there’s going to be conflict. Moreover, there’s nothing objectively wrong with either approach to parenting, which just goes to show how difficult it is to be a parent. Especially when there’s nothing overtly wrong with the child in question.
Just as Avery had no idea how much impact her words and actions had on others, Christy had no idea how much power her words and actions had on her family. That’s a very powerful take-home message for any teachers or parents in the audience, and it’s why I can let the cliched nature of Avery’s family slide. Just barely.
Finally, it bears mentioning that the film only deals with Avery and her friends. So we’ve got the kind of bully who doesn’t know what kind of harm she’s causing, and we’ve got the kind of bully who just goes along with whatever her friend does. But what about the psychopaths? What about the kids who get into bullying because they get off on the pain and suffering of others? What about the sickos who dominate their peers just for the thrill of it? Well, this movie doesn’t address those kids. It wasn’t made for those kids because no movie could possibly reach them.
No, A Girl Like Her was very clearly made for those well-intentioned parents and teenagers who have no idea what a harmful impact they’re causing. It was made as a reminder that words carry far more weight than we may perhaps realize and even the most inane opinion can matter tremendously between peers. It’s also a reminder that every life matters and no one should ever feel pressured to commit suicide. Even one death related to bullying is one too many, and that’s what makes this discussion so important. And in turn, that’s what makes this movie so important.
In spite of a few cliched moments and characters, this movie is positively throbbing with emotional honesty. Every moment in this movie is presented in a bold and heartbreaking way that is guaranteed to stay with the audience long after the credits have rolled. Even if it gets preachy at times, this is a message that has to be spread. Even if it’s not a perfect movie, we absolutely needed a movie like it.
…Or we can just watch a few college students get killed by a ghost over a Skype connection. Whatever. That’s cool.