The causes and consequences of teen bullying get a potent if not entirely persuasive airing in “A Girl Like Her,” a mix of found-footage thriller, mock-doc realism and public service announcement that rings true almost as often as it rings false. There is much to admire in writer-director Amy S. Weber’s well-acted, well-meaning cautionary tale about a high-school student who attempts suicide after being relentlessly targeted by a verbally abusive classmate. Yet the film’s agenda-driven approach, while sure to strike topical chords and generate exposure in American high schools far and wide, has the inevitable effect of compromising the drama, which seems less and less convincing the more blatantly it strives for authenticity.
Weber’s film has a tough opening scene: Jessica Burns (Lexi Ainsworth), a sophomore at South Brookdale High School, opens her parents’ medicine cabinet, downs a bottle of pills and falls unconscious. All this is shot from Jessica’s p.o.v.: She’s wearing a pin concealing a tiny camera, which we later learn was given to her six months earlier by her friend Brian (Jimmy Bennett), for reasons that will be revealed shortly. As the girl lingers in a coma, watched over by her heartbroken parents (Stephanie Cotton, Mark Boyd), a documentary filmmaker, Amy (Weber herself), starts filming in and around the corridors of South Brookdale High, determined to capture a definitive snapshot of the average public-school experience. It’s not long before Amy has begun tracking the story of Jessica’s suicide attempt, the motive for which she soon traces to Avery Keller (Hunter King), one of the most popular girls in school — and, as we later observe in Jessica’s secretly recorded footage, the sort of mean girl who would give even Regina George pause.
In short, every moment of “A Girl Like Her” is meant to be perceived as “real,” captured by cameras that are explicitly accounted for in the story — whether it’s Jessica’s pin, Avery’s own video diaries or the more heavy-duty equipment wielded by Amy’s crew. It’s a shrewd enough conceit, nicely reflecting the obsession with self-depiction and technology that afflicts the average modern teenager (and quite a few adults as well), while also heightening the verisimilitude of what we’re watching. Working with d.p. Samuel Brownfield and editor Todd Zelin, Weber capably simulates the look and texture of a documentary, observing with fly-on-the-wall detachment as students hang out in the hallways, capturing the heated discussions at an emergency PTA meeting, and using school administrators and teachers as calm, rational talking heads.
At a certain point, however, Weber pushes her conceptual strategy well past the point of plausibility. If what we’re seeing here is supposed to pass for an actual documentary, the result feels clumsy enough at times as to suggest a textbook demonstration of how not to make one — starting with the crew’s habit of eavesdropping on students in their most private moments (the sound recording in these scenes is improbably first-rate). Elsewhere, there are instructive reminders that throwing a verite frame around a scene doesn’t automatically render it believable, just as the act of filming a parent’s grief doesn’t become less exploitative simply because the camera is shaking along with them.
What makes “A Girl Like Her” intriguing in spite of these flaws is the fact that Weber’s interest clearly resides more with the villain than with the victim in this scenario, which may account for why Jessica, though well played by Ainsworth, never becomes more than an object of sympathy. Avery, by contrast, emerges as the true protagonist of a story that fully intends not only to expose her, but also to redeem her — to hold her up as a living, breathing embodiment of the old saying that “Hurt people hurt people.” Heading up a strong cast, the 21-year-old King (an Emmy winner for her work on “The Young and the Restless”) etches a fully rounded characterization here, doing full justice to Avery’s viciousness, but also to the defensiveness and vulnerability lurking beneath her stereotypical blonde-queen-bee surface.
Humanizing a monster — and allowing her to tell her story in her own words — is an eminently worthy aim in a movie that is nothing if not eminently worthy. But at a certain point, Weber’s meddlesome alter ego doesn’t seem to be documenting the events in question so much as auditioning for the job of guidance counselor, all but enfolding her characters in a group hug. The teary-eyed, over-scored montage that closes “A Girl Like Her” would feel manipulative in the extreme even if it didn’t build to a final shot of altogether remarkable dishonesty: For a movie that’s trying to teach the teenagers of America that their actions can have tragic repercussions, there’s something borderline irresponsible about the idea that a simple show of remorse is all it takes to make everything OK.