Like Kirby Dick’s recent “The Invisible War” and “The Hunting Ground,” “Audrie & Daisy” indicts a culture where sexual assault is rife, and where its perpetrators all too often escape any legal or other punitive consequences. In this case the milieu is just your apparently average American high school, as teenagers represent the most at-risk age group for such crimes at present. The title of Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s feature refers to well-underage girls violated in high-profile cases by male classmates; none of the latter received any serious punishment, while the victims subsequently committed suicide and were driven out of town, respectively. This powerful, well-crafted documentary was picked up by Netflix at Sundance; one hopes it has a long career in educational exposure ahead as well.
The film successively focuses on two cases that wound up getting national attention. At a drunken 2012 back-to-school party in Saratoga, Calif., pretty, popular but insecure 15-year-old Audrie Pott passed out. Three classmates she considered friends then stripped her, drew obscene graffiti all over her body in indelible marker, digitally violated her, and took pictures — which were quickly spread all over school (and beyond). Panicked the next morning, with no idea what had happened, Pott was soon writing one friend: “I now have a reputation that I can never get rid of … My life is over.” Within a week she’d hung herself. Despite the public outrage, the juvenile assailants (two of whom are interviewed here, albeit under pseudonyms with their faces obscured) got little more than wrist slaps from the court system for what they claim was just a practical joke.
The same year, in Maryville, Mo., 14-year-old Daisy Coleman and her 13-year-old best friend, Paige Parkhurst, were likewise “experimenting with alcohol” when they accepted an invitation from teammates of Coleman’s star-athlete older brother. (The latter, oblivious, was asleep in bed when they snuck out.) Upon the girls’ arrival at one boy’s house, five underage youths (who were still several years their senior) plied the girls with multiple straight-liquor shots until they were scarcely conscious. They were then taken into separate rooms, assaulted, and driven “home”; Coleman was found half dressed outside by her parents at 5 a.m., her hair frozen to the winter lawn.
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It took the police department very little time to identify the perps. Yet apart from one apparently conscience-stricken boy who actually confessed, the others saw their charges dismissed for lack of evidence — though as presented here, it seems some evidence was very possibly tampered with or erased. Widespread public outcry ultimately resulted in a second investigation, but that ultimately followed the Saratoga scenario in leading to scant punitive consequence. (The film suggests this surely had something to do with the fact that the boys involved were all prominent players in a football-crazed town, and one of them was the grandson of a former state senator.)
Meanwhile, the Coleman kids were shunned and harassed at school, with Daisy branded a liar and a whore online. Eventually the family was subject to violent threats, their home vandalized and then burned down (an event that goes unexplained here). They ultimately moved back to Albany, which they had left not long before to “get a fresh start” after a black-ice car crash killed Daisy’s father.
Shot over the course of several years, “Audrie & Daisy” witnesses the toll of this saga on Coleman, who goes from being a bubbly blonde cheerleader to a heavily pierced Goth girl posting bleakly depressive messages online. At the end, she seems to have pulled herself back to some semblance of stable mental health, but it’s clear she nearly succumbed to Pott’s fate. One major source of support came from a group of sexual-assault survivors after Delaney Henderson, a California teen with a similar story, read news reports and contacted her. As with the victims of military and campus rape in “The Invisible War” and “The Hunting Ground,” these victims now agitate publicly for greater awareness of the circumstances and mindsets that perpetuate such assaults, not to mention their frequent “slut-shaming” aftermath.
That such crimes are hardly aberrations is underlined by several eye-opening factors observed here, from the pressure put on many girls as early as middle school to take/share nude photos of themselves, to the alarmingly insensitive attitudes of some alleged public guardians. Maryville’s sheriff and then-mayor, both interviewed extensively, seem like responsible, justice-serving figures at first. But after a certain point the first begins repeating ye olde “It’s the girl’s fault, too” refrain, while the second seems primarily upset that the case made the community look bad. It begins to look like Maryville — in what’s hardly an isolated scenario — ultimately viewed a juvenile’s rape as something that should have been politely buried, with the most terrible “crime” being the negative national press attention it brought to the town.
Documentary vets Shenk and Cohen (who also co-directed 2012’s “The Island President”) bring considerable narrative propulsion to this involving saga. The packaging is straightforwardly pro, with some brief animation repping the sole more stylized contribution.