Powerful Girl a Thought-Provoking Stunner
The independently produced A Girl Like Her is without question a message movie, and there are times where that is a problem. The picture can feel forced, a little too manufactured, hammering home its points with next to no subtlety, creating a didactic form of melodrama that comes off more as an ‘After School Special’ from the early 1980s more than an assertive character study chronicling high school life of the here and now. There’s virtually no point where the viewer sees themselves disappearing into things, the idea that this is a fictional story rarely in doubt.
Yet, be all that as it may, A Girl Like Her is arguably one of the more vibrant, electric and dynamically alive motion pictures I’ll see this year. It’s also one of the most important. In a shockingly brief 92 minutes, writer/director Amy S. Weber manufactures a scenario that swept me up inside its emotionally volatile confines with shocking ease, allowing things to build and evolve in ways that are vibrant and visceral. While the truths it ultimately builds to are hardly surprising that doesn’t make them any less breathless in their poignantly catastrophic delivery, the lives forever damaged by the out of control events depicted staggering in the extreme.
South Brookdale High School is one of the nation’s top high schools. Underneath the surface, however, things aren’t as they appear. At least, that’s how 16-year-old Jessica Burns (Lexi Ainsworth) sees it. She’s being relentlessly bullied by former friend and resident Queen Bee Avery Keller (Hunter King), tormented to the point she’s starting to think of doing something tragically horrific. Enlisting the help of friend and erstwhile guerilla filmmaker Brian Slater (Jimmy Bennett), she attempts to document exactly what has been happening to her, hoping she can maintain her sanity long enough to see things through to a logical, and hopefully cathartic, end.
The film is really three stories in one. There’s a documentary crew at the school looking to chronicle a major student body celebration only to see themselves having to refocus their attentions when the situation between Avery and Jessica is thrust out into the open. Then there is Brian’s clandestine investigation, his secretive chronicling of what is happening between the two girls positively damning. But there is also Avery’s story, the popular teen also filming her own thoughts, crafting an exceedingly personal videography showcasing how someone so smart, seemingly so self-assured, could become an insecure bully compulsively ridiculing those who used to be her closest confidants.
Working from the flimsiest of scenarios, Weber and her talented cast improvised the majority of the film as they went along, utilizing information culled from countless hours of interviewing teenagers – bullies and victims alike – about their high school experiences. When this team gets things right the effect is startling, achieving a level of introspective eloquence that’s astonishing. The emotional authenticity driving things forward is never in doubt, both Ainsworth and King delivering honest, nakedly raw performances that continually cut to the quick, showcasing the omnipresent pain and anxieties that’s sadly driving their respective characters forward.
As glorious and magnetic as all this might be, there are times when the spell cracks and Weber’s desire to punch her message through becomes a little too overbearing for its own good. On more than a few occasions I began to feel like I was being lectured to; and while I didn’t have any issues with the information being imparted, the fashion in which it was being delivered sadly left something to be desired. More, the faux-documentary esthetic wears thin at times, and if not for the two actresses’ continued magnificence there’s a chance I might have lost interest long before the film came to its heart-stopping, genuinely tearful conclusion.
A chance, yes, but perhaps only a small one. These nitpicks aside, I can’t say A Girl Like Her didn’t still rock me to my core. The revelations Weber unveils as things progress are staggering, the film achieving a state of eloquent importance I was flabbergasted by. While the message the filmmaker is sending out isn’t unexpected, the way it is delivered more often than not is, and for young people in particular, and likely their parents as well, this is one drama whose viewing isn’t just recommended, it’s pretty much essential.
Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)