MIFF Next Gen Review: Valentine Road

0 Comments 22 July 2013

In the first of our reviews for the Melbourne International Film Festival’s Next Gen stream, programmed with viewers under the age of 18 in mind, DAMON CAI takes a look at Marta Cunningham’s Valentine Road.

And I can’t change
Even if I tried
Even if I wanted to…

One of the first sounds you hear in Valentine Road, and one of the last, is Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s Same Love, originally written in support of the same-sex marriage campaign in Washington state but now an anthem for the wider gay rights movement. The song’s success marks the increasing prominence of LGBT issues in public discourse as more and more countries allow same-sex marriage, with the campaign for it here picking up steam as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared his support, and the election — which will likely determine its immediate future — only a month or two away. Valentine Road has certainly arrived at the right time to make itself heard.

This documentary tells the story of two boys in Oxnard, California: 15-year-old Larry King, an openly gay 8th grade student who cross-dressed, and his classmate Brandon McInerney. On February 12th 2008, Brandon shot Larry twice in the head; he died two days later. Brandon is serving a 21-year sentence after he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

In her debut film, director Marta Cunningham weaves together the narrative of a tragedy — a tableau of intolerance, broken families, gun culture and death. Valentine Road deals with extremely polarising issues: Brandon’s trial was declared a mistrial after the jury became hopelessly deadlocked, unable to decide after six days and four votes between voluntary manslaughter and first- or second-degree murder. The case became a showcase for many issues, from gender expression to perceived flaws in the legal system (Brandon, 14 at the time of the shooting, was tried as an adult under California’s controversial Prop 21 law; “Save Brandon” became the slogan of the defence, which repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to have Brandon tried as a minor). Several of the jurors were openly homophobic; one says in an interview that Brandon was “solving a problem”, and another refers to Larry’s “deviant behaviour”.

In the midst of this charged atmosphere, however, the film manages to remain remarkably even-handed. It has no narration, focusing instead on the people in the eye of the storm: their voices become its voices, their views its views. The interview subjects include the friends and families of both Larry and Brandon, as well as teachers at the school, all with different opinions about the subject, and counsels for both the prosecution and defence in Brandon’s trial. The main focus among them is on Marina and Mariah, Larry’s friends and classmates, both inspired by his bravery in expressing himself and devastated by his death: “There are so many things he never got to do … all the things he’ll never be able to do…”

The interviewees’ points of view are wildly different, often at odds with each other — in one scene the chief prosecutor describes Brandon as a “bully and a thug” with CCTV footage of him in a prison fight playing on her monitor, while in the next his girlfriend reveals that he’s “the only one who’s ever cared” about her. But from these disparate perspectives a far more complex picture emerges, not just of the two children at the centre but of the wider backdrop, one of neglect and child abuse, of guns hanging in a child’s bedroom, of a series of mistakes and oversights on the part of the school and teachers. As one subject says, “Every single adult fucked up everything at every single step of the way.”

Valentine Road is not an easy film to watch. But more important than that, it is a worthwhile film to watch. It paints a portrait of society’s failings and makes you look it straight in the eye — all the intolerance and all the fear, all the hate and prejudice that made a 14-year-old shoot his classmate in the back of the head for asking him out for Valentine’s Day — and it asks us to do better: to accept, and to understand.

Valentine Road screens at MIFF on August 2 and 4. For more information, visit Marta Cunningham is also a guest of the festival and after the screening on August 2 will participate in an exclusive panel discussion for school groups, alongside comedian Tom Ballard and industry experts. For more details, visit

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