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D: Amy S. Weber / 91m

Cast: Hunter King, Lexi Ainsworth, Jimmy Bennett, Amy S. Weber, Stephanie Cotton, Mark Boyd, Christy Engle, Jon W. Martin, Madison Deadman, Anna Spaseski, Mariah Harrison, Emma Dwyer, Michael Maurice, Gino Borri, Sarah Kyrie Soraghan

If there’s a message to be found at the heart of A Girl Like Her, a tale of bullying and its consequences, it’s not that bullying is wrong per se (though of course it is), it’s that we all make mistakes, and especially when we’re young. In this particular movie, mistakes are made by children and adults alike, and some of them are compounded and inexcusable. And yet the movie seems to be saying, if, after the fact, you’re sorry, then that’s alright. That may be a very nice, and very politic way of looking at things, but unfortunately, by the time A Girl Like Her arrives at that conclusion, its argument has been undermined completely by its approach up until that point.

The movie quickly introduces us to Jessica Burns (Ainsworth), a student at South Brookdale High School who is anxious, depressed, and contemplating suicide. She has one friend, Brian (Bennett), who she spends a lot of time with, and she’s confided in him that she’s being bullied at school by her one-time best friend, Avery (King). Their friendship changed over a minor incident that could have been dealt with very easily, but Avery has used it as a launchpad for a series of incidents that have made Jessica’s life an absolute misery. Brian gives her a brooch that doubles as a spy camera, and he persuades her to wear it at school, to document the bullying and provide proof that it’s happening. Jessica wears it, but is too fearful of what Avery might do if she finds out about it that she refuses to do anything with the footage, and she makes Brian promise he won’t tell anyone about it either. Then, one day, while wearing the brooch, she takes an overdose and lapses into a coma.

At this stage of the movie, what we’ve seen so far has been a compilation of footage shot by Brian, and footage from the spy camera. Now, with Jessica in a coma, and with no certainty that she’ll fully recover, the task of providing the viewer with footage falls to a documentary movie crew who are at South Brookdale thanks to its recent, highly impressive ranking in the national school league tables. Sensing a bigger story than the school’s educational achievements, the documentary’s director, Amy Gallagher (Weber), decides to focus on Jessica and how the rest of the students and the faculty feel about what she’s done, and the possibility that it’s linked to bullying. But “the fun” really begins when Amy finds out about Avery and decides to incorporate her into the documentary. Given a camera to record a daily video diary, Avery soon uses it as a means to make the viewer feel sorry for her instead of Jessica, but when Brian breaks his promise and shows Amy the footage of Jessica being bullied by Avery, “the most popular girl in school” soon learns that her past behaviour hasn’t always been her best behaviour, and her popularity begins to wane.

By mixing found footage with documentary footage in order to tell both Jessica’s story and Avery’s story, Weber has created a movie that looks and feels like a basic documentary but which veers off into straight up drama territory too often to make the conceit a successful one. It’s an earnest movie that looks to explore the fallout from Jessica’s suicide attempt in a way that’s sincere and non-judgmental – and therein lies its biggest problem. An initial talking heads approach with Amy eliciting the thoughts and reactions from students and faculty offer the expected clichés (“She was in my class but I didn’t really know her”), but once the idea of Jessica’s suicide attempt being the result of bullying arises, there are thinly veiled criticisms of the school’s anti-bullying policy (mostly from the teachers), and the students react in an offhand, blasé kind of way. For them, bullying, though deplorable, is just another fact of high school life.

So far, so predictable. But then, with Jessica consigned to a coma, Weber turns her attention to Avery, and makes her the focus instead. At first, this seems like a good idea, but the movie becomes irrevocably heavy-handed from this point on, and all the nominally good work Weber has put in so far begins to fall away. An extended scene at Avery’s home during dinner time shows her mother (Engle) behaving inappropriately and showing a complete lack of understanding in regard to Avery’s feelings. From this, we are meant to accept that Avery’s home life and domineering mother are to blame for her bullying Jessica, and that she is just as much a victim of bullying as Jessica. This would be fine if it wasn’t all too pat, and if Avery didn’t show any remorse until she sees the footage from the spy camera showing her being unrelentingly abusive. Sympathy for Avery, the movie seems to be saying, is essential if the cycle of bullying is to be broken, but Avery’s behaviour is presented as self-aware and opportunistic; she’s enjoying being a bully. And in another scene that’s meant to be telling, she does all she can to ensure that her parents don’t see the spy camera footage.

The movie strives to be an emotional rollercoaster as well, with tears at every turn, melodramatic scenes at the hospital, and awkward moments where Avery’s friends attempt to distance themselves from their involvement in her attacks on Jessica. It also stumbles badly in a scene where the school principal (Maurice) holds a meeting with Avery and her parents to get her side of “the story” (Avery’s friends have written a letter blaming her for Jessica’s situation). Avery is allowed to get angry, swear at the principal and storm off without any repercussions whatsoever. It’s a scene that lacks credibility throughout, and later, when Amy attempts to offer Avery help in dealing with the fallout from a self-serving, self-pitying video she posted online, the perilously thin line between documenary movie maker and secondary character is crossed irrevocably, and the movie reveals it’s true raison d’être: to persuade the viewer that being a bully is a matter of emotional circumstance and any blame is ephemeral. All of which is likely to provoke a less than satisfied response in the average viewer, and particularly if said viewer has been the victim of bullying themselves.

Nevertheless, there are good performances from King and Ainsworth, with strong support from Cotton and Boyd as Jessica’s distraught parents, but they’re all in service to a script that too often preaches when it should be observing (as all good documentaries do). Weber doesn’t always move from one scene to the next as fluidly as might be expected, and Samuel Brownfield’s cinematography noticeably varies between handheld and static and often in the same scene, a decision that undermines any attempt at cinéma vérité that Weber might be aiming for. There’s the germ of a good idea here, but with too much going on that feels forced or laboured, the same can also be said of the movie’s message… and that it can be applied to the movie itself can be considered unfortunate and ironic at the same time.

Rating: 5/10 – overheated at times and often lacking in subtlety, A Girl Like Her strives to provide a meaningful discourse on bullying and its aftermath, but falls short in its aim thanks to poor plotting and some wayward characterisations; with its uncertain approach and mix of shooting styles, it’s a movie that’s searching for a fixed identity, one that it brushes up against from time to time, but which it has very little chance of connecting with.