A Girl Like Her (2015)

15 Aug


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Afterschool Specials. Lifetime movies. ABC Family (er, sorry—Freeform) Original Movies. Some of the films in either of these categories are well-done. But they have a reputation among many for throwing out several manipulative, bland, not-especially-well-made films that tell stories that deal with important issues that aren’t as effective they should be, as a result of being insipid. How do you make a film that tackles an important issue while making it well?

Simplest answer: make it well. Focus on the writing, the characters, the direction. Take the issue from a clear-eyed point-of-view. Write people who could be you or people you know. Don’t just base it on what you see/hear; base it on what others see/hear too, maybe. Hell, take risks. Think outside the box (the box within which most of the offenders continue to think).

Take school-hallway bullying. This is still a big problem in society, and for as long as it’s been around, I’m sorry to say it shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon. Making a film about bullying and the tragedies that result from it is not an easy task, as most films that try to tackle the issue end up being either wishy-washy or flat-out ordinary. Not that any film is going to make something go away, no matter what it is, but there needs to be some good attempts.

Amy S. Weber’s “A Girl Like Her” is a very good attempt. This is the kind of film teachers should show their students that just could maybe—maybe—raise a few eyebrows.

“A Girl Like Her” is a “mockumentary” (a fictional story told in documentary-style fashion), but it might as well be real; its emotional honesty about an important subject made me forget that everything was scripted and actors were playing roles (even though I’d seen one of them—Jimmy Bennett—in many other movies before, like “Orphan” and “Trucker”). The high school portrayed in the film could be any high school. The students feel real. And so on. Even if it doesn’t entirely work (I mean, it is possible some people would forget cameras are rolling on them and say certain things, but it is unlikely), I praise it for attempting to understand the mindset of both of the school bully and the bully’s victim.

A documentary is being filmed at a high school that is being proclaimed as one of the top 10 in America. The documentary’s director (played by the director herself, Weber) finds an interesting angle after student Jessica Burns (Lexi Ainsworth) attempts suicide and rumors indicate that the harassment she received from popular girl Avery Keller (Hunter King) might be responsible.

The film constantly switches points of view by showing additional footage from time to time—footage recorded by Jessica, her best friend & video geek Brian (Bennett), and even Avery herself, as she’s asked by the director to show what her life is like. We learn that Avery has in fact harassed Jessica countless times in the halls and even through text messaging and email. Brian gave Jessica a secret camera hidden in a necklace (and he filmed some things with his own camera as well), because he felt this behavior had to be exposed somehow. We also learn that Jessica didn’t want it brought to light, because she thought things would only get worse rather than better. And more importantly, we see what Avery’s home life is like: she comes from a dysfunctional family with an overbearing mother who demands too much, and she tries to hide it as best as she can. And of course, when more and more rumors pile on about her part that led to Jessica’s attempted suicide, she’s in denial, claiming she couldn’t have done that much damage.

Anyone remember the 2012 documentary “Bully?” (You know, the one that caused that ridiculous MPAA rating controversy?) Anyone else think that should have been called “Bullied” instead? After all, it didn’t focus on any of the bullies; just the victims of bullying. What did the bullies go through in their lives? What caused them to inflict harm onto others? “A Girl Like Her” mercilessly shows a lot of the physical and verbal abuse perpetrated by Avery onto Jessica (and it’s pretty hard to watch—the movie doesn’t shy away from it, which is another honorable element to its success), but then in the last third, it pulls off an incredibly surprising trick: making us empathize with the bully too, as the gravity of the true hurt Avery caused comes crashing down on her, internally and externally. It leads to an ending that may be a little too immaculate, but it is very effective nonetheless and adds to the cautionary-tale aspect. And Hunter King portrays the part extraordinarily well in a final monologue that led to chills running down my spine.

“A Girl Like Her” is a powerful film with three winning performances (King, Ainsworth, and Bennett) and a careful examination about a problem still being faced today. Will it change the way things are? Probably not. But as I said before, it’s a real good attempt.

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