Valentine Road, which kicks off HBO’s fall season of new documentary premieres this Monday, is a film more complex than you’d expect. At its center is the 2008 death of 15-year-old Larry King, who was shot twice in the back of the head during computer class by 14-year-old schoolmate Brandon McInerney. But the focus is twofold as first-time director Marta Cunningham explores the life and legacy of King, who had begun to self-identify as female prior to being killed, while also following the trial of McInerney, who thanks to California’s gang-inspired Prop 21 was prosecuted as an adult. It’s a film that sheds awareness on the intolerance of a community and then sides with that community on a separate issue. As the press notes stress, it’s a film about two victims, murdered and murderer.
I am still wrapping my head around the doc. So, when I talked to Cunningham and producer Sasha Alpert (Austism: The Musical) nearly a month ago, I was even further off from cementing my thoughts about their difficult and affecting film. Much of the interview was concentrated on the narrative and thematic turns in Valentine Road and the way the filmmakers provide an outlet for some characters with very disagreeable ideas. We talked about why both were important to the stories here, and about the decisions they made regarding the complicated nature of both King and McInerney’s situations. Cunningham also confirmed to me that her next project is a narrative film, a biopic, but she won’t say about who yet.
Nonfics: Marta, is it true you went up and embedded yourself in this town soon after the shooting?
Marta Cunningham: I started filming in September 2008, which is 6–7 months after the shooting. It was the kids who brought me and who didn’t want me to leave when I would go up there. They really loved talking to me and airing their feelings and grievances and asking questions. It seemed like they weren’t really accustomed to hanging around a straight adult who was also a parent who was comfortable with differences of this degree. That was kind of shocking to them. They were comfortable with sharing their sexual orientation or talking to me about the hardships at school that they had, whether it was for being lesbian or bisexual or gay.
So I built a real trust, an intimacy with the families. The parents aren’t in it as much, but one of the parents especially would have a gathering at her house. “Marta’s coming, so you need to come over.” She was always very welcoming and also very happy to share her experience. She has a great statement, which is, “What do you tell your child when her best friend is shot in the back of the head in the classroom? What am I supposed to tell her?” I think that speaks volumes. What are you supposed to tell your children when they witness a crime like that?
Nonfics: So you weren’t living there, but you must have been there a lot judging by how much you filmed.
Cunningham: Oxnard is really only about 30–40 minutes from Los Angeles. It’s surprisingly close. It’s very different, but it’s only 40 minutes away.
Nonfics: And you were clearly around enough to gain the trust of a lot of people.
Cunningham: I definitely had to prove myself, but yeah eventually we got there. They are very proud to be from Oxnard and they don’t really like L.A.
Nonfics: I’m particularly impressed with the trust you got from the characters who were not tolerant of Larry’s self-expression and who have no problem coming across in the film as though they think the killing was justified.
Cunningham: I think my job was to bear witness for people even if I didn’t agree with their ideas and philosophies. They had a platform to speak their minds. I gave them that. Because they were fighting for Brandon’s life, is how they felt.
Nonfics: So you felt it important not to judge them or portray them as bad people?
Cunningham: The trial was a very divided experience for people. I really thought they had every right to air their opinion. I think it’s really important to understand that in 2013 people still feel this way, and it’s better to know it than not know it. We can’t just live in our comfortable bubble surrounded by people who understand difference. We have to understand why they don’t accept difference, so we can change that. I did feel it was my job to make a comfortable space for absolutely everyone I talked to.
Nonfics: And they never worried about you being in disagreement with them?
Cunningham: Well, I was very conflicted about the idea of trying [Brandon] as an adult. I think it’s wrong. I think it’s morally and ethically wrong. They knew I felt for Brandon, because of the background he had and the troubled childhood he was still living in. I expressed that to them, and so they expressed their feelings to me.
Nonfics: The structure of the film surprised me, in part because it’s very linear and so things come about in the film as they happened. Like the way we meet the lawyers, and then the film sort of shifts to be about the legal issue and Brandon’s case, as that fits the chronological narrative. What made you choose to tell it this way?
Cunningham: I had the support of both my producers to take the journey I took and the experiences I went through. Without putting myself in it. I’m not a fan of that. It was important for us to tell the story with the twists and turns that I went through.
Sasha Alpert: Also it’s a portrait of a town. And a portrait of a situation without us really bringing a tremendous amount of judgment to it. It was what was going on. People say things they really believe, and as an audience you can just draw your own conclusions. In many ways this opens up more questions and asks more questions than it answers. I think Marta did that intentionally. We had all supported her in that vision, to really just show what was going on.
Nonfics: So it starts to get away from Larry’s situation and gets more into humanizing — or trying to understand — Brandon and his background and how he could have done this. But for that, the story heads down a dark path that must have increasingly made it difficult to give him a fair portrayal.
Cuningham: It wasn’t. I knew exactly who he was. I had no intention of covering up who he is. With that said, I wanted to make sure we remembered that he was a child. Really, it still goes back to Prop 21: Is it just and right to try a child as an adult? You might not like Brandon. You might not like his actions. But is that really the question? The question is, is it just to try a child as an adult? That’s why we keep going back, why I show you pretty much everything there is to show about Brandon, everything you need to know. All the good and bad about this child. Do you still think it’s just? That’s the question we really wanted to bring home. Is it fair for children to be tried as adults, Brandon included? Is that fair?
Nonfics: But then the trial goes to other places besides that, and you’ve got the child psychologist calling Larry a bully and jurors talking about how this is a reverse civil rights case for whites and heterosexuals. It keeps getting trickier to side with Brandon’s defense.
Cunningham: Those are other people’s issues, right? That’s the interesting part, I think, and that’s why it gets really complicated and complex. We give everyone a platform that was integral to the trial and the case and the lives of these boys. Ultimately, the question is, is it cruel and unusual punishment to try a child as an adult, which is what the argument was in the Supreme Court. People can rationalize their way into anything, really, and they do in this film. Ultimately it all comes back to is this a just law.
Nonfics: One thing I was curious about is whether you know — or if anyone really knew — if Larry was transgender and really identified as Latisha, or if he was gay. And if the former, why did nobody in the film, even his family and friends, use female pronouns?
Cunningham: I think this was a discovery that the kids were making. Except for Aliyah. She knew from the very beginning that Larry was a gender-nonconforming child and thought of him that way. He went by Larry and many different female ‘L’ names. The day that he died it was Latisha. It switched off, as we talk about in the film. There were many names that Larry liked and was toying with. It’s hard to say, because he was killed, so we’ll never know what Larry really would have been. I definitely think that to say he was gay was a choice we decided not to make in the film. We talked to a lot of people from the LGBT community and they agreed with us. We’ve been told that really gender-nonconforming is the correct term to use for children that are going through what Larry was going through.
Valentine Road premieres on HBO Monday, October 7, at 9pm ET.