If you think you understand teenage hate crimes, think again.
The provocative new HBO documentary “Valentine Road (premiering Monday, October 7 at 9 p.m.) will challenge you to the core. Human behavior is complex – baffling really – and often inexplicable, despite our attempts to make sense of the senseless.
Larry was a slight 14-year-old biracial transgender youth who in February 2008 was the victim of premeditated execution by Brandon McInerney, a white male classmate. Brandon pulled the trigger in school during a lesson about tolerance and Anne Frank and the Holocaust.
Larry and Brandon had more in common than meets the eye. Both were abused and neglected youth who were failed by nearly every adult in their early childhood.
Larry finally found a safe haven at a shelter called Casa Pacifica, where he ate and slept well and made friends. Once in a caring environment, he began to muster the courage to express his true female gender identity. Back at school, most of his teachers and classmates didn’t know what to make of his high heeled boots, make-up, dangly earrings and more. He “accessorized” his school uniform for two weeks before he was gunned down.
One teacher, Dawn Boldrin, accepted him, and even gave Larry her own daughter’s prom dress. The scene in which Larry joyfully runs to the school bathroom to try on the dress is cleverly recounted in narrated animation. “I told him, ‘Larry, no one’s going to kill you for who you are.’ But a year later he was shot.” It happened in her classroom.
Violence was a way of life in the McInerney household. Brandon’s parents were addicts. His father threatened to kill his mom and even shot her in an alcoholic rage. They separated. His strung out mother eventually became homeless and Brandon went to live with his drug-dealing dad in his grandfather’s home where guns and bullets were easily accessible. Brandon was becoming drawn to white supremacist ideas.
Larry apparently had a crush on Brandon and was public about it. Brandon found it a humiliating insult to his masculinity, so he told Larry’s pals, “Say goodbye to your friend Larry because you’re not going to see him after tomorrow.” Then, he put a gun in his backpack and put some bullets in Larry’s head.
The film peels back the layers in the lives of these troubled young people through interviews with many of the central characters in their lives: Brandon’s mother, brother and girlfriend, Larry’s best friends, their teachers, the defense attorneys, the prosecutor, even the jurors.
What’s painful to watch is just how many adults blame Larry for his own death. He shouldn’t have flaunted himself; he shouldn’t have flirted with a straight boy; he shouldn’t have been allowed to wear heels and make-up to school. Why did the school make an exception for him? Poor Brandon was being sexually harassed; he was the victim in this story, targeted by an out-of-control freak. That’s what many in the Oxnard community believed, including several moms on the jury who later rallied and campaigned on Brandon’s behalf.
The news media played up this question of whether Brandon was target of inappropriate behavior that bordered on bullying. Was that responsible journalism? Was that “balance?” Who is the murderer and who is the murdered? Can we expect appropriate behavior from 14-year -olds, especially those who’ve rarely seen it modeled by adults in their lives.
Some of the most intense moments of the film are the footage from surveillance cameras during Brandon’s police interrogation as well as videotaped evidence of his violent outbursts in prison while awaiting trial. He may be developing the muscular body of a man, but his brain is still that of a volatile boy. The prison video captures a tearful exchange between his parents, in which his mom asks his dad, “What is wrong with Brandon? Why did he do this?”
Still, the idea that a 14-year-old would be tried as an adult and get life imprisonment without parole is the ultimate lack of faith in both human potential and an institution that still holds onto the label of “corrections.”
Following a mistrial, Brandon plead guilty to second degree murder and wound up with a 21 year sentence. The film shows him receiving his high school diploma in a small prison ceremony led by none other than the Superintendent of Schools. Even as this official stamp of support is stomach-turning, it is a sign of hope. As is the apology letter that Brandon sent to teacher Dawn Boldrin, who lost her job, suffered PTSD and even attempted suicide following the killing.
The film raises questions about how the school system handled this case. Apparently the school thought one day of therapy was enough for the youth who witnessed a brutal crime, then it was allegedly back to the business of learning. And when students planted a tree in Larry’s memory, they were forbidden from adding a plaque with his name since it would dredge up bad memories.
My daughter is 14. It’s nearly impossible to imagine a role for her in this film. I don’t live in Oxnard, but there really is nothing special about where I live that would have prevented such an incident from happening here. Perhaps the only preventive measure would be for teenagers across the U.S. to screen and discuss the film in school with a facilitator trained to teach about gender identity, diversity and acceptance. And for schools to be ever vigilant in identifying potential perpetrators in their midst so their students don’t wind up with blood on their hands or a life behind bars.
“Valentine Road,” 89 minutes, premieres Monday, Oct. 7 at on HBO, with encores.