“To be gay, you can get killed for it… We need to change the message.”
—Ellen Degeneres, 29 February 2008
“Every single adult just fucked up everything at every step of the way and continues to, and I think that’s what’s so frustrating to me.” Standing on courthouse steps in Ventura County, defense attorney Robyn Bramson’s upset is visible. Her client, Brandon McInerney, was just 14 years old in 2008 when he walked into a computer classroom at Oxnard’s E.O. Green Junior High School and shot 15-year-old Larry King twice in the back of the head.
On its face, Bramson’s assessment seems right. If it’s difficult to know precisely what “every single adult” did at any given point during the time leading up to the murder or in its aftermath, but indicates that many adults shared responsibility in the evolving crisis. Premiering on HBO 8 October, the film interviews classmates of both Larry and Brandon, family members, teachers, the homicide detective assigned to the case, and the prosecuting and defense attorneys.
“It was a bad thing that happened, a horrible thing that happened,” observes Averi Laskey. “We all learned a lot about life through this and I know people on the outside have learned a lot about themselves through this.” Like Bramson, Averi is surely right. But to the film’s enormous credit, just what anyone learned remains somewhat elusive.
Valentine Road features a range of interview subjects who voice conflicting concerns and express their discontents, but it also resists casting judgment against one person or another. That’s not to say you might not come to your own conclusions, or that the film doesn’t help in that process, in juxtaposing certain interviews or images. It is to say, however, that this process consistently involves seeing how children are influenced and—specifically—injured by their interactions with careless, self-involved or variously uninformed adults.
Valentine Road unfolds the story of Larry’s murder slowly, suggesting the many ways that adults in Oxnard “fucked up.” Just after the shooting, the kids who had seen it were removed by authorities to another room. “Since Columbine,” observes detective Jeff Kay, “Our first priority is what do we do with the children that were in the classroom and witnessed what happened.” According to one of those children, Mariah, that priority was less than well considered, as they were provided with a video to watch, Jaws. When she suggests a better choice might have been “a cartoon”, Valentine Road cuts to the very bloody scene where the shark eats Quint.
This decision, seemingly minor and likely made without much reflection, suggests a pattern of thoughtlessness on the part of adults in charge of children’s welfare. As the film reveals, both Larry and Brandon were troubled in different ways. Larry was removed from his drug-addicted mother’s home and adopted by the Kings, who were reportedly abusive; he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and reactive attachment disorder and eventually removed to a group home.
When he began to feel confident in his sexuality and wore makeup and girls’ clothes to school, he was supported by some teachers and classmates but rejected and taunted by others. One of these others, Brandon, had his own troubles at home; his mother Kendra was addicted to meth, his father Billy also an addict, as well as a dealer.
Again and again, adults here fail children. Some of Larry and Brandon’s teachers suggest they noticed problems, but don’t intervene. Looking back, teachers and administrators recall instances of bullying or harassment, upset and distress, Brandon’s interest in Nazi ideas and iconography, Larry’s interest in makeup and in Brandon. Larry’s eighth grade teacher Dawn Boldrin—who witnessed the shooting—says she gave her daughter’s prom dress to Larry, who loved it.
Illustrating Larry’s imagined response in delicate animation (where he runs into the bathroom to try on the dress), the film then cuts to his seventh grade teacher, Shirley Brown, who offers an opposite interpretation, that Larry’s self-expression endangered him and should have been stifled. The camera follows her in her home, pausing on a Last Supper reproduction on the wall above her head. She goes on, “I relate to Brandon, ‘cause I could see my own self being in that very same position. I don’t know if I would have taken a gun, but a good swift kick in the butt might work really well.”
The opposition here is replayed in the boys’ parents and guardians’ responses, as well as in their lawyers’ interviews. They appear in close-ups, mostly alone, unlike the kids, who sit in two-shots with one another, supporting each and nodding as they speak. Prosecutor Maeve Fox rejects Brandon’s “gay panic” defense, pointing to other instances when he attacked fellow students, as well as his notebooks filled with swastikas; defense attorneys Bramson and Scott Wippert argue that Brandon was a victim as well, traumatized at home.
“I don’t know if I can ever explain what it is about this kid that means so much to me,” says Bramson. “I just I love him, he’s one of my favorite people on the planet.” She sits here on a sofa with her associate on the case, Scott Wippert, who remains silent as her eyes tear up and she reveals a tattoo that reads, “Save Brandon.”
As the film is structured by interviews with people who knew or thought they knew Larry and Brandon, and not with Brandon, you’re left to guess at Bramson’s assertion here, her inability to explain how she’s drawn to “his energy, his spirit.” But it’s striking that Bramson, who has recognized the culpability of so many adults in this case, here expresses herself, not as a responsible adult lawyer, but as a passionate devotee. No matter her presumably good reasons, her performance here is as reckless as that of any adult who doesn’t take care of these children.
In fact, the case drew all manner of public attention and displays of same, including national TV reports, pleas from Ellen Degeneres for tolerance and CNN’s Larry King for a Day of Silence in honor of the boy who shared his name. As Valentine Road suggests, such public attention to Oxnard hardly encouraged adults there to rethink their roles in what happened or the environment they continue to shape.
This leaves it to the kids to speak, and they do, asking questions and observing what still troubles them. As several express their pain and loss, from Brandon’s half-brother James (who points out that when he collapsed in tears on hearing the news, the policeman with him suggested he had no cause, as his brother was not the victim), to Larry’s friends.
Tears are common in these responses, as children recall how they felt and articulate how they still feel. After you listen to an audio recording of Mariah’s testimony at Brandon’s trial, when she was unable to continue and sobbed, she looks back on it. “Everyone asked me how I would react when I saw Brandon,” she remembers. Though she thought she might “attack him”, she says, Mariah looked at him in the courtroom and felt something else. “I know what it’s like when you’re alone,” she says, “Unfortunately, that’s what he turned to, because that’s what he was taught.”