Sara Hirsh Bordo’s cheerfully upbeat documentary offers an engaging if heavily sugared portrait of a courageous woman triumphing over a disfiguring genetic mutation that prevents her from gaining weight. Tracking the young Texan’s passage from bullied child to self-assured motivational speaker and lobbyist, “A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story” is strong on Velasquez’s developing backbone and smarts with the support of school and family. As a rallying cry for anti-bullying legislation, however, the film is superficial, glossing over the rather vague and toothless act that Velasquez is still trying to push through Congress together with Tina Meier, the mother of an online bullying victim who committed suicide. Though Bordo is a touch too inclined to nudge Velasquez into sainthood, such is the force of her charm and determination that “A Brave Heart” will likely appeal to audiences beyond anti-bullying activists and disability advocates, though mostly in VOD, where it will debut simultaneously with its theatrical release.
In the first moments of “A Brave Heart,” a woman enters the frame, sits down, adjusts her hair and smiles. The gesture may be common enough in any woman about to appear in public; in Velasquez, a disability and anti-bullying activist in her 20s, it’s momentous and telling. Her hair is just dandy, but her face is wizened, her vision impaired, and her 58-pound body is as stick-thin as that of a skinny girl on the cusp of adolescence. Afflicted with a syndrome that, undiagnosed for years, prevents her from gaining weight, Velasquez can be a shock to behold on first encounter. But this articulate, intelligent woman carries herself with preternatural confidence, grace and unflappable friendliness. So much so that we quickly come to take for granted that her upcoming talk in front of a live Mexican audience of 10,000 will be a breeze for her and her listeners.
How Velasquez got to be an accomplished TED Talker from her radically premature birth is the journey followed in Bordo’s documentary, which is as sunny and positive as its subject. Bordo has abundant dramatic instincts: Velasquez’s transformation begins in teenage crisis, when an online bully posts a YouTube calling her “the Ugliest Woman in the World.” The video’s online traction and attendant cruel commentary devastate her — until she decides to fight fire with fire. With unfailing support from her terrific family, she creates her own, more conciliatory video, becomes an adept user of social media, and launches a thriving career as a motivational speaker.
At times the film comes across as boosterish publicity, stuffed with celebrity encounters that aren’t really necessary, the most awkward of which is a perfunctory meeting with Hillary Clinton, who seems to have been inadequately briefed on exactly to whom she’s talking.
Aside from one heartfelt conversation with Meier about their darker moments and brief scenes of Velasquez falling ill on her journey through the Capitol, “A Brave Heart” prefers uplift, neglecting the monumental effort it must have taken Velasquez’s equanimity, to say nothing of the stress on the family, in particular once she receives a daunting prognosis. The anti-bullying bill is lauded without scrutiny of its bland, possibly inoperable call for “zero tolerance” of school and online bullying. That this is controversial terrain — is it even possible to legislate against bullying? — goes unmentioned along with the much-discussed possibility voiced in passing by the subject’s father, that bullies are often damaged people, as sorely in need of help as their victims. Velasquez’s signal contribution to that debate may not be her lobbying, but her remarkably generous, forgiving nature and her charismatic sparkle. If ever there was a poster child for the adage that living well is the best revenge, it’s Lizzie Velasquez.