Nothing if not timely, director Marta Cunningham’s richly detailed, deeply affecting docu “Valentine Road” burrows into the case of a 2008 school shooting that took the life of Lawrence “Larry” King, an openly queer teenager in small-town Oxnard, Calif. Though the ugly phobia that gave rise to the killing and permeated the legal proceedings boils the blood, the film’s tone is somber rather than angry, and its effect is quietly devastating. The HBO film seems certain to command attention and to play a part in the current debates over gun control and the disciplining of school bullies.
Cunningham makes effective use of photographs, school surveillance video and courtroom illustrations, but it’s the film’s interviews with those of highly varying sensitivity that give “Valentine Road” its greatest power. Forcing herself through tears to describe the moment when a 14-year-old student drew a pistol and shot King twice in the back of the head, former E.O. Green Junior High School teacher Dawn Boldrin also recalls, with a haunting mix of pride and regret, having given King an old prom gown to wear only weeks before. Another teacher callously suggests that the cross-dressing boy brought the tragedy on himself.
The docu also includes testimony from those principally concerned with the rights of the perpetrator, Brandon McInerney, currently serving a 21-year sentence in state prison for second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. To some of these people, it’s the shooter who was victimized when, around Valentine’s Day, King publicly announced his amorous feelings for McInerney. One of the attorneys for McInerney’s defense, Robyn Bramson, sports a “Save Brandon” tattoo on her arm, while one of the jurors in the case asserts that the murderer was “solving a problem.”
Much to its credit, the film — named for the cemetery road on which King is buried — hardly shrinks from characterizing the case as complicated by the circumstances of McInerney’s troubled upbringing. Both of the boy’s parents were drug addicts, his father a violent one; his grandfather kept a collection of guns for show, while his friends helped expose him to white supremacist philosophy. Like the biracial King, McInerney was beaten from a very young age. Ultimately, the docu’s twin subjects are the ignorant intolerance of adults and the profound tragedy of two scarred childhoods.
Tech package is sharp.