The documentary “Valentine Road,” which debuts on HBO October 7, isn’t a film that provides easy answers.
In February of 2008, 15-year-old Lawrence “Larry” King was gunned down while in computer class. Larry, who was openly gay, had recently been exploring his gender expression, and would wear women’s makeup and high-heeled boots to his middle school in Oxnard, California. Brandon McInerney, a fellow student, was so humiliated when Larry asked him to be his Valentine during a playground game, that he shot Larry twice in the back of the head the following day, in an act of apparently premeditated murder.
The devastating case only became more complicated as details emerged. Both Larry and Brandon led traumatic childhoods. In the months before his death, Larry had been moved to a shelter for troubled foster kids. Meanwhile, Brandon lived with his father, an abusive alcoholic, because his mother, a drug addict, wasn’t capable of providing parental care. Brandon had become increasingly interested in white supremacist thought, doodling swastikas in notebooks. Larry was multi-racial, adding yet another dimension to the nature of Brandon’s crime.
But that’s not all: Under a California law designed to deter gang violence, 14-year-old Brandon could be tried as an adult. This meant he would potentially face life in prison without the chance of parole.
First-time filmmaker Marta Cunningham and producer Sasha Alpert knew this was a case with myriad issues at play. “We all thought it was important that we make a film that didn’t tell you how to feel,” Alpert says. “That seemed to us a more powerful way to go.”
Indeed, the film is remarkable in its even-handedness. Cunningham interviews people close to both Larry and Brandon -- from friends and family members, to teachers and the defense and prosecuting attorneys -- to give a fully fleshed out sense of who these two teen boys are and were. There is no demonizing, no monster-calling.
Cunningham describes maintaining that balance as “very challenging,” but that “it was important for me to bear witness to everyone, and make sure that everyone had a safe space to air their opinions.”
Even if those opinions made her extremely uncomfortable. Cunningham, who is African-American, knew that she would be posed with personal challenges from day one. Some of the interviewees would be racist, would display the same white supremacist ideology that Brandon had become involved in. “These were all things I was willing to do,” she says. “Because Larry had. I wanted to do this because this is what our kids are dealing with.”