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A Girl Like Her

March 27, 2015
A Girl Like Her

Any movie that wants to take on the problem of bullying it going to fall short of the lived experiences of the people who actually have been bullied. They take so many forms that it’s hard to identify any truly universal commonalities. So while A Girl Like Her does focus on one particular form of bullying, it wouldn’t be fair to knock it for ignoring all the others.

Writer/director Amy S. Weber sets the movie up as a narrative, so we can expect a deep dive into a single experience rather than the broad survey that a documentary like Bully might aspire to. Specifically, it’s the experience of Jessica (Lexi Ainsworth), who starts the story off by downing a fistful of hydrocodone from her parents’ medicine cabinet. She’s desperate to escape the torments heaped upon her by Avery (Hunter King), her one-time friend turned queen-bee bully.

Jessica’s suicide attempt happens just before a documentary crew arrives to film at the South Brookdale High, neatly reminding the audience that this isn’t something that just happens at “bad schools”. The director — I’m assuming this is Weber herself — immediately pivots into investigating what drove Jessica to this point. It’s not long before she turns up Jessica’s friend Brian (Jimmy Bennett), who recorded footage on his own camera and on a button cam he gave to Jessica to document her abuse. It offers a pretty damning case against Avery, but as is all too common for victims of abuse Jessica refuses to let him use it, fearing that it will just make things worse.

I’m sure that this sort of one-on-one harassment — Avery has a clique of friends who back her up, but she’s clearly the instigator of every action against Jessica — is common enough, but is it really prevalent? Jessica isn’t overweight, or homosexual, or a member of a religious, cultural, or ethnic minority, or anything else that might single her out for abuse. Any such characteristic can help isolate a victim from the rest of the school community, which can magnify her sense of hopelessness, but that’s not the case here. There’s not really any indication of what made the situation so unbearable beyond the sheer intensity of Avery’s wrath, and the explanation we get for that intensity doesn’t really work for me.

Once the crew has identified Avery as the likely tormentor, the director approaches her. Avery, predictably, claims that her interactions with Jessica were innocuous, and that people don’t understand the stresses that a “typical teenage girl” like her puts up with to maintain her own popularity. The director offers her a camera to share what she means with the audience, and Avery accepts.

It might seem incongruous for a girl who takes such care to manage her public image would suddenly be so unguarded, but that’s as maybe. The real purpose of Avery’s footage is to give an insight into her life. Her father has lost his job, her brother is an aimless college dropout, and her mother is a mean and spiteful woman herself. This echoes the concerns of one father at the ensuing PTA meeting, that bullying is driven by the bad home lives of the bullies.

This thesis is what Weber brings to the table with this movie: that as in other cases of abuse, the abusers were often themselves abused. And that may well be true, but having been on the receiving end myself I have a hard time feeling the compassion Weber urges us to feel for someone who drove a former friend to suicide. Yes, I believe that many bullies, like Avery, are lashing out at scapegoats to escape their own emotional pain. Yes, I even believe that some bullies, like Avery, don’t understand the pain that they inflict on others. But there is simply no excuse for this sort of violence, and Weber doesn’t do nearly enough to keep from letting Avery off the hook.

Among all the other cheap melodrama — the parents’ grief over their daughter, the demands at the PTA meeting that something be done, the teachers lecturing that suicide is permanent for lack of anything else to say — the movie builds to the point when Avery will be confronted with her own actions. It’s the ultimate wish-fulfillment for a depressed bullying victim. It’s a chance to exact some pain back on the victimizer, coupled with a reassurance that yes, they will totally be sorry after you’re gone.

Jessica, meanwhile, is lost in the shuffle. Obscured by life-support equipment and frantically wringing hands, we learn next to nothing about this young woman and why she felt suicide was the only way out. The most powerful segments of Weber’s film are the painfully honest depictions of what Avery did to her, but they end up taking a back seat to all the other points Weber wants to throw in.

We never do see just how the system failed Jessica; we only know that it did. Trying to understand why Avery became a bully may help stop other Averys from going down the same path, but it can only put a dent in the problem. There will always be more kids who decide that bullying is the best way to get what they want. The solution isn’t about managing causes — playing up sympathy for the devil — but in managing the effects.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

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