February 12, 2008, started like any other day at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, a California beach town northwest of Los Angeles. Eighth-grade students filed into the computer lab to do an assignment on the topic of tolerance. But before the class was over, 15-year-old Lawrence “Larry” King lay fighting for his life, shot twice in the back of the head at point-blank range by classmate Brandon McInerney. Two days later, on Valentine’s Day, Larry died, the victim of a crime that grabbed national headlines and dramatically changed the lives of the students, teachers and community.
Valentine Road explores the murder of a teenager who had begun exploring his gender identity, revealing the circumstances that led to the shocking crime, as well as its complicated aftermath. Directed and produced by first-time filmmaker Marta Cunningham and shepherded by award-winning producers Sasha Alpert (HBO’s Autism: The Musical) and Eddie Schmidt (HBO’s Twist of Faith), the film raises issues about the safety of LGBT teens, juvenile justice and the ability of the country’s educational and social service systems to prevent such tragedies.
In many ways, Larry and Brandon couldn’t have been more different, yet they also had much in common. Larry, who was multiracial, had become increasingly open about exploring his gender identity, and had recently started wearing makeup and heeled boots to school. Brandon, who was Caucasian, had a girlfriend and displayed a growing interest in white supremacist ideology. However, both had difficult childhoods. Larry had recently been transferred to a shelter for troubled kids, while Brandon was exposed to drug abuse and violence at home.
In the film, students describe a schoolyard Valentine’s Day game in which students professed their romantic feelings for a classmate. The day before the shooting, Larry asked Brandon to be his Valentine in front of Brandon’s basketball buddies. Valentine Road features interviews with a broad range of people whose lives were touched by the killing, including students Marina and Mariah, who witnessed the murder; Brandon’s mother, brothers and girlfriend; defense attorneys Robyn Bramson and Scott Wippert; prosecutor Maeve Fox; Oxnard homicide detective Jeff Kay; teachers who knew both Larry and Brandon; and jurors from Brandon’s trial. Their candid comments highlight the complexities of the case.
Along with the incalculable human cost of the shooting, the film also explores its wider cultural and systemic implications. Under Prop 21, a California law designed to deter gang violence, Brandon could be tried as an adult, potentially facing life in prison without the chance of parole.
Through interviews with legal teams, jurors, homicide detectives and hate-crime experts, the film considers the impact of the law as Brandon’s case moves to an eventual criminal trial. Some of the interviewees, including members of the jury, express support for Brandon and insist that he shouldn’t have been tried as an adult without a chance for rehabilitation.
Valentine Road also reveals polarized and potentially dangerous attitudes toward tolerance and gender expression in the United States. Even Larry’s teachers span the spectrum of perspectives on how to manage a student exploring gender identity.
Ultimately, the documentary is a story of two boys whose paths led them to this incident. Tracing the human wreckage of their tragedy, the film probes notions of justice and identity, and puts human faces on key questions confronting social service agencies and schools all over the country: What can be done to help young people like Brandon and Larry before something like this occurs, and what can be done in the event those efforts fail?
Valentine Road was an official selection in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and has won numerous awards on the festival circuit, including Miami’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival for Best Documentary and Frameline Film Festival’s Jury Award for Outstanding Documentary.
Valentine Road is a BMP Films (the film division of Bunim/Murray Productions) production in association with Eddie Schmidt Productions; directed and produced by Marta Cunningham; produced by Sasha Alpert & Eddie Schmidt; director of photography, Arlene Nelson; editor, Tchavdar Georgiev; consulting editor, Yana Gorskaya; music supervisors, Dave Stone & Justin Gage; associate producer, Kevin McSeveney; executive producers, Jonathan Murray & Gil Goldschein. For HBO: supervising producer, Lisa Heller; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.